It’s called the Fourth Estate, a term used by journalists referring to their responsibilities and obligations as watchdogs of democracy, providing objective truth to the public they serve.
In a nation where we pride ourselves on freedoms, the First Amendment is the only line of defense newspapers — like this one — can rely on to maintain that Fourth Estate.
That’s why what happened in Kansas recently is so important. A small-town newspaper, the Marion County Record — not much different from this one — had its offices raided by police as part of an identity-theft investigation.
It’s not that media outlets work above the law — far from it. But raiding a newspaper office and retrieving materials that may have otherwise been protected under the First Amendment is something that can’t be done on a whim, and requires near-extraordinary circumstances.
This particular raid, according to reports, stemmed from a complaint by a local restaurant owner who felt that her privacy was violated when the Record uncovered her troubled driving record.
Police weren’t sure how the newspaper obtained the information on her 2008 drunken driving conviction, and concluded that it had to involve illegality of some sort. They said that the only way a reporter — or someone working with the reporter — could have obtained that information was by falsely claiming to be the restaurant owner. And if they did, they committed fraud.
But verifying information is what reporters do. Yes, they must use legal means, but a number of First Amendment advocates questioned whether there was enough probable cause against the newspaper to meet the extraordinarily high bar of raiding the newsroom.
Eric Meyer, the publisher and editor of the Record, suspected the raid was retaliation for the paper’s coverage of the local police department, and may have even been an attempt to stall future reporting on the police chief. Instead, the raid — and the effort to justify it in light of nationwide criticism — has created new problems for law enforcement and prosecutors, whom we depend on to serve and protect all of us.
Newsroom raids are extremely rare thanks not only to First Amendment, but also the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, which prohibits law enforcement from searching or seizing information from reporters, with a few exceptions.
One of the exceptions is how an organization obtains its information, which is what law enforcement and prosecutors in Marion County claimed opened the door to the raid in the first place. In the initial fallout, those government officials defended the action, saying they had enough evidence to support it.
Yet less than a week after the raid, local prosecutors withdrew the search warrants and returned the seized items, determining that “insufficient evidence exists to establish a legally sufficient nexus between this alleged crime and the places searched and the items seized.”
Freedom of the press is a guaranteed right, and must be recognized by law enforcement agencies responsible for upholding our rights. The Founding Fathers made this protection explicit, because as Thomas Jefferson famously said, ”The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right. And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
The press must be allowed to work independent of government scrutiny. If a media outlet does violate the law, it should be prosecuted — but only in a way that keeps protections guaranteed by the First Amendment intact.
Otherwise, violations of the amendment not only threaten community newspapers like the Record, they also endanger democracy as a whole.
Reporters, armed only with an obligation to the truth, must be protected in carrying out their watchdog role, especially when it comes to investigating corruption or scandal. Journalists have a duty to hold public officials accountable, and without the protections of the First Amendment, they would be left to fend for themselves in the face of very powerful forces capable of changing anyone’s life forever.
We pity societies in which the press is not free. Where oppressive behavior like unjustified office raids is used by despots and dictators as a way to suppress knowledge and information from public view.
That’s why a threat to one local newspaper like the Marion County Record is a threat to all media. As reporters, we pride ourselves on our integrity — the only currency we have with you, our readers — and work hard to supply the news coverage you want and need to be engaged and informed.
Maybe law enforcement felt it truly was justified in its actions in Marion County. But in the end, it simply reminded us that our rights in the free society that is the United States are solely dependent on the people we put in place to govern us — and the independent media that exists to hold them truly accountable.