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Guest column

They finally fired the cannon

Managing editor
Appen Media in Alpharetta, Georgia

My first newspaper job was at the Marion County Record. The late editor and publisher Bill Meyer taught me everything I know about community journalism.

Bill’s wisdom and his command of writing for his small-town audience was an acquired taste for a young college graduate with aspirations for The New York Times or Chicago Tribune. It took months, but I finally came around.

The first thing Bill told me was to focus primarily on the massive historic courthouse directly across the street where all county government business took place.

Bill told me that, at one time, the courthouse had a Civil War cannon on its front lawn. It was aimed straight at the newspaper.

The antique had been removed by the time I arrived in 1980. But last Friday, they lit the fuse anyway.

City police, acting on a warrant signed by a magistrate judge, raided the newspaper office, confiscating equipment, computers and other materials necessary for publishing the Record.

They didn’t stop there. Police also raided the home of the publisher, Bill’s son, Eric Meyer, seizing equipment and electronics.

The raid sought information a confidential source had provided the paper about a DUI conviction of a local business owner applying for a liquor license.

The news staff never intended to publish the story because they surmised it was planted to discredit the business owner. Nevertheless, they did check out the lead by combing through government records.

During the process of the home and newsroom search, police snatched a reporter’s cell phone, aggravating an earlier injury she’d sustained to a finger.

Eric’s 98-year-old mother, Joan, who shared ownership of the paper, also lived at the house with Eric. Police took her computer and the router that gave her access to Alexa smart speakers she used to call for assistance and to stream television.

Joan watched as police pored over her son’s bank records and investment papers.

Joan was the paper’s community editor when I worked there, so I knew her well. She was always laughing, smiling about something.

Her son said she was in good health for her age up till last Friday. That night, she was crying.

After the police raid, she couldn’t eat or sleep. The next day, she collapsed and died.

The Marion County Record was my professional nursery. Now, its ability to publish has been seized.

I know of no other instance in my lifetime in which police shut down a newspaper in the United States. There are countless cases of it happening in Turkey, China, and Russia.

I spoke with Eric on Monday, and, like his father, he was focused on getting the paper out this week.

He was in the middle of untangling the mess left in the wake of the police raid.

“Even if I have to scribble something out on a notebook and deliver it door to door, we’re going to have something published this week,” he said.

Having worked four years under Eric’s wise father, I was alarmed at the raid. Alarmed, not surprised.

I recall my very first day at the paper back in 1980 included a face-off with the Marion Police Department over a silly accident report — a public record they refused to share because The Record had run an article about an arrest that included the suspect’s side of the story.

I eventually got the accident report, but only after telling the police chief and his four officers that I would ask your father to pay a visit to the mayor’s office.

Last week’s raid was like something out of Erdogon’s Turkey or Kim’s North Korea. It simply does not happen here.

We hear so much these days about upholding the Constitution.

This is where I should write some lofty platitudes about freedom of the press, about guarding our constitutional rights — maybe quote Jefferson.

I should write that the press is the only profession specifically cited for protections in the U.S. Constitution.

I carry in my head the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter in his 1971 dissent in the case of a similar police raid at the Stanford University newspaper.

They are beautiful words — almost poetic. Bill probably would have probably put them in a box on the front page:

“Perhaps as a matter of abstract policy a newspaper office should receive no more protection from unannounced police searches than, say, the office of a doctor or the office of a bank. But we are here to uphold a Constitution. And our Constitution does not explicitly protect the practice of medicine or the business of banking from all abridgment by government. It does explicitly protect the freedom of the press.”

I should write all that.

But I’m too angry.

I’m furious.

Last modified Aug. 17, 2023

 

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