A restaurant owner in small-town Kansas is defending herself against accusations that her complaint about the reporting tactics of a local newspaper led to an unprecedented police search of the publication’s offices and the death of an elderly woman, raising alarms from First Amendment advocates across the country.
“You can knock me down, but you can’t kick me out,” Kari Newell of Marion told the Kansas City Star.
“A lot of people take straightforward honesty as abrasive,” she added. “People aren’t familiar with hearing the truth.”
On 7 August, Ms Newell, who owns two restaurants in the town, complained at a city council meeting that the Marion County Record had illegally accessed her personal information as it investigated a potential story on the business owner’s past offences involving drunk driving and driving without a licence.
The paper began investigating the past offences after local residents, including Ms Newell’s estranged husband, were circulating claims about Ms Newell’s history on social media using an alleged screenshot from a government website. A reporter for the Record, Phyllis Zorn, used information from the screenshot to investigate the claims, a move the Kansas Department of Revenue later said was legal.
“It would have been irresponsible to just take the word of someone out there,” Ms Zorn later told The Washington Post.
The paper ultimately decided not to run the story.
Nonetheless, after Ms Newell’s public complaint, police searched the offices of the Record, on 11 August, seizing computers and cell phones.
They also searched the home where the paper’s editor, Eric Meyer, lived with his elderly mother. In harrowing home video footage, Ms Meyer can be seen yelling at police to leave. She died the following day.
After the raid, the story got even more complicated.
Press advocates say it’s extraordinarily uncommon and alarming for police to raid a newspaper’s offices, especially for accessing a public website, in this case the Kansas Revenue Department’s page.
“Newsroom searches and seizures are among the most intrusive actions law enforcement can take with respect to the free press, and the most potentially suppressive of free speech by the press and the public,” read a letter signed by 34 prominent news and media groups after the search.
"There appears to be no justification for the breadth and intrusiveness of the search – particularly when other investigative steps may have been available – and we are concerned that it may have violated federal law strictly limiting federal, state, and local law enforcement’s ability to conduct newsroom searches."
The warrant for the raid on the paper’s offices alleged that the paper was “either impersonating [Newell] or lying about the reasons why the record was being sought.”
Meanwhile, Ms Newell said she’s been deluged with violent hate mail filled with expletives and comparing her to Hitler.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation is investigating the case.