Kansas newsroom raid raises red flags for student press freedom

Lights on a police vehicle.

The Student Press Law Center is alarmed by the recent police raid of the Marion County Record newsroom, which serves as a reminder that we all must stand against the ever-increasing threats to the press freedom rights of professional and student journalists across the country.

Law enforcement in Marion, Kansas, executed a search warrant Aug. 11 as part of an investigation of alleged identity theft and the illegal use of a computer, raiding the local newspaper’s office and the publisher’s home. The Marion County Attorney then withdrew the warrant on Aug. 16, and released all confiscated computers, cellphones and other reporting materials to the newspaper’s attorney.

While newsroom raids like that in Marion are especially rare, it serves as a reminder that student journalists should familiarize themselves with the law concerning police’s search and seizure of newsgathering offices and materials.

As detailed in SPLC’s Student Media Guide to the Privacy Protection Act, federal law makes it illegal for law enforcement officers or government officials to search a newsroom (or anywhere else where newsgathering materials are kept, such as the trunk of a reporter’s car) in connection with a criminal investigation, except in narrow circumstances. Some states also have their own laws limiting law enforcement’s ability to search newsrooms.

The federal law was inspired by a 1971 police raid of The Stanford Daily, Stanford University’s student newspaper. After The Daily published staff photos of a violent clash between student demonstrators and city and county police, the police obtained a warrant to search The Daily’s offices. The Daily then sued the police department claiming the search was unconstitutional. Police also have shown up at other student newsrooms since then, including at James Madison University’s The Breeze.

In addition to explaining the law, SPLC’s guide offers practical tips for how to handle the situation, including keeping on hand a copy of the Privacy Protection Act and SPLC’s legal hotline. Student journalists should also consider how they encrypt and back up their reporting devices.

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Top Legal Resources

Should student journalists ever find themselves in a situation like that at the County Record, SPLC has always got your back. We’ve gathered a few of our top legal resources you can reference if you are ever confronted by police, and if you are in need of legal assistance in these situations, contact our free legal hotline immediately for guidance.