(Reuters) – A Kansas newspaper that was searched by police said its 98-year-old co-owner died on Saturday from stress related to the incident, which free press advocates condemned as a possible violation of the Marion County Record’s First Amendment rights.
A search warrant, authorized by a Marion County District Court judge, said there was probable cause to believe there was identity theft and unlawful acts concerning computers, according to an image of the warrant published by the Kansas Reflector news organization.
In a story published on its website, the Record said the search of its office was related to a reporter verifying a drunken driving charge against a local restaurant owner, Kari Newell.
Reuters was not able to reach Newell or the reporter, Phyllis Zorn, for comment. Calls to the Marion Country Record went unanswered. A recording at the restaurant and its website indicated the eatery was closed on Sundays.
Reuters could not independently verify the warrant’s contents or the Record’s story.
“Stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief after illegal police raids on her home and the Marion County Record newspaper office Friday, 98-year-old newspaper co-owner Joan Meyer, otherwise in good health for her age, collapsed Saturday afternoon and died at her home,” the paper reported.
The Record said in its article Meyer had been unable to eat or sleep after police showed up at the door of her home on Friday with a search warrant and took away her computer and router.
Reuters could not establish the state of Meyer’s health before the warrant was served and was unable to reach the Marion County Medical Examiner to confirm the cause of death.
Marion County Police also searched the newspaper office on Friday, seizing personal cell phones, computers and the newspaper server, among other equipment, the Record said.
Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on Sunday. On Saturday, he issued a statement justifying the search of the newspaper.
“As much as I would like to give everyone details on a criminal investigation I cannot. I believe when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated,” Cody said.
Such searches are highly unusual given that news organizations are largely protected from government intrusion under the free press guarantees of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The Kansas Press Association described the search as “unprecedented” and “an assault on the very foundation of democracy.”
The Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also condemned the police search and demanded that all seized materials be returned.
“There appears to be no justification for the breadth and intrusiveness of the search – particularly when other investigative steps may have been available,” the committee said in an open letter to Cody.
The letter was signed by more than 30 major media organizations, including Reuters, the Associated Press, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
(Reporting by Reuters staff; Editing by Don Durfee and Lisa Shumaker)