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The raid sparked coast-to-coast outrage, but it also raised concerns about the eroding relationship between government officials and the reporters who cover them. Plus, more news to use from around the country in this week's State and Local Roundup.
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It’s Saturday, Aug. 19, and we’d like to welcome you to the weekly State and Local Roundup. There’s plenty to keep tabs on, with the Maui fires, school districts suing social media companies, book battles reaching new heights and a “transportation disaster” in Kentucky. But first, we’ll start with the highly unusual police raid of a newspaper’s office in a small Kansas town.
The search of a publication’s newsroom and its editor’s home set off a media frenzy across the country this week. It also raised concerns about the eroding relationships between local government officials and the reporters who cover them.
The seizure of computers, cellphones, bank records and other materials from the Marion County Record was decried by reporters and journalism organizations as heavy-handed. The outrage only grew when Joan Meyer, a 98-year-old co-owner of the paper, died the day after the raids. Meyer’s son, Eric, is the paper’s editor.
Within days, the local prosecutor announced that the police did not have enough evidence to support a search warrant for the paper’s offices, and ordered law enforcement to return all of the materials they seized.
“It was an unconscionable, illegal action by law enforcement against journalists who were just doing their jobs for their community,” said Diana Fuentes, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and dozens of news organizations sent a letter to Gideon Cody, the chief of the Marion Police Department, calling the search warrant “overbroad, improperly intrusive and possibly in violation of federal law.”
Public officials in Kansas were considerably more circumspect. Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, said in a TV interview that the situation made her “anxious” but would not say whether she thought anyone’s rights were violated. Attorney General Kris Kobach, a Republican, said the Kansas Bureau of Investigation was working with local police because of allegations that newspaper personnel improperly accessed a secure criminal justice computer system. “The KBI was not, of course, involved in these searches and was not notified of the searches prior to their taking place,” Kobach noted.
The raid came after the paper investigated—but did not publish stories about—the criminal record of a restaurant owner who kicked reporters out of a public meeting with a local member of Congress. After the raid, The Record reported this week that the restaurant owner had lost her driver’s license for drunk driving, an offense that could jeopardize her effort to get a liquor license. The paper also disclosed that it had looked into allegations of misconduct about Cody, the police chief, when he was hired several months ago.
Upon taking office, Cody cut off the paper’s access to records of routine activities the department engaged in every week, something that had been a regular feature in the newspaper for decades.
Police rarely seek search warrants on news organizations, mostly because federal law directs them in almost all cases to pursue information with subpoenas instead. The federal Privacy Protection Act of 1980’s “subpoena first” approach gives reporters and newspaper owners a chance to challenge subpoenas in court before having to turn over contested materials.
But the Kansas raid comes at a time when relations between public officials and journalists are especially fraught. Former President Donald Trump regularly blasted legitimate news gathering as “fake news,” and that has emboldened other elected officials to attack reporters as adversaries as well. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, has made a combative relationship with the press part of his public persona.
“There is an age-old tension [between the press and public officials] because folks don’t want the truth to be told about them if it’s going to impact their power,” Max Kautsch, a Kansas lawyer who handles First Amendment and open government cases, told Route Fifty. “But what we are seeing here is the culmination of attempts to destabilize and demonize the institutions of this country, including the press.”
“For these local law enforcement officials, respect for the First Amendment and the press as a viable institution that needs to be protected by the law [has] eroded rather significantly,” Kautsch said. “Demonizing institutions this way makes reporters way more vulnerable here in 2023 than they were before 2015.”
But Stephen Wolgast, a Knight chair and professor of the practice of journalism at the University of Kansas, said the Marion County raid was an outlier. “It’s a one-off in the United States, let alone Kansas,” he said. “Antagonism is really played out more in terms of either name-calling by politicians—like ‘fake news’ kind of stuff—or just not responding” to reporters.
“I’m aware of nothing even close to—in my opinion—deceiving a judge to get a search warrant instead of a subpoena … to raid the entire newsroom and the [editor’s] house,” he said.
Still, other incidents have rattled reporters. An elected official in the Las Vegas area stands accused of murdering Jeff German, an investigative reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, last year. County officials in Oklahoma were caught on a recording discussing plans to kill a reporter who regularly covered them. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented 93 cases of law enforcement seizing journalists’ equipment or work since 2017. Police most often took reporters’ cellphones and cameras.
In Kansas, a 2010 dispute about a Dodge City reporter’s jailhouse interview with a murder suspect led to the passage of a state shield law to protect journalists from having to divulge their sources in court. The law passed with overwhelming majorities in the Kansas Legislature, despite deep partisan divides there.
If the Marion officials wanted to pursue information held by reporters, they should have filed a criminal case and then subpoenaed the newspaper, which could have then asserted its rights under the state shield law, said Kautsch. But it’s likely local law enforcement didn’t know about the federal or state protections when they pursued their search warrant instead, he said.
New laws aren’t needed as much as adherence to existing protections, Kautsch said. “I’m not sure that a shield law can do much to prevent the government from violating First and Fourth Amendment rights,” he said.
Wolgast, the professor, said press scrutiny is part of public life in the U.S. Officials “need to be willing to let their constituents look at the work they do and criticize them, because they are working for us,” he said. “If you don’t want the scrutiny, take a different job. And if you think the press is treating you unfairly, have lunch with the reporter, have lunch with the editor and talk about what’s going on.”
Meanwhile, police in Marion returned the equipment to the Marion County Record employees. The newspaper put out a paper this week with the headline: “SEIZED… but not silenced.”
Keep reading as there’s more news to use below, and make sure to come back here for the week’s highlights. If you don’t already and would prefer to get it in your inbox, you can subscribe to this newsletter here. We’ll see you next week.
News to Use
Trends, Common Challenges, Cool Ideas, FYIs, and Notable Events
- Schools sue Meta, TikTok over student mental health crisis. In South Carolina, the Charleston County School District is suing the tech companies behind Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube for allegedly creating a mental health crisis among students. The 244-page complaint, filed Aug. 15, says the companies “intentionally cultivated” their platforms to grow their user bases among children. The school district also alleges that students have increasingly suffered from mental health challenges. Charleston’s lawsuit is the latest dispute in a growing battle between social media companies and school districts. In recent months, a number of districts across the country, including in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee, have joined in on multidistrict lawsuits or filed their own against social media companies.
- Book battles reach new heights. They are raging across the nation, but none has carried the kind of stakes as the one in Dayton, a one-stoplight farming community in the southeastern corner of Washington state. For the county’s only library, the battle has turned, quite literally, existential: Voters will decide in November whether to shut it down. The library, which has occupied the same modest brick building a block off Main Street for 86 years, is at risk not because of a lack of funding or a lack of demand for its services. Instead, it could shutter because of a yearlong dispute over the placement of, at first, one book, then a dozen and now well over 100, all dealing with gender, sexuality or race. It would be the first library in the country to close because of a dispute over what books are on the shelves, according to the American Library Association. Meanwhile, books are now being pulled from the shelves of Mason City schools' libraries in Iowa in order to comply with newly enacted state legislation that requires that every book available to students be “age appropriate” and free of any “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act.” The district used artificial intelligence software to review books for sexual content.
- Utilities are increasingly getting sued over wildfires. Now so is Hawaii’s. Authorities have yet to conclude what caused the fire that tore through Lahaina, leaving at least 110 people dead, but the utility that powers most of Hawaii is already facing mounting legal and financial problems related to the Maui disaster, according to the Honolulu Civil Beat. Plaintiffs in at least four lawsuits allege the company caused the blaze and that it should have turned off its power lines ahead of the fierce wind storms that were forecast that week. Power lines and other electrical infrastructure have ignited hundreds of fires in the American West over the past 10 years. In the aftermath of these events, Grist recently reported, victims and insurers have increasingly sued large investor-owned utilities for billions of dollars in damages. Some experts believe this wave of legal action and the massive payouts that have come with it have made it harder for utilities to fund grid upgrades that can prevent future fires. What’s more, they believe utilities are passing the costs down to their customers in a region where electricity rates are already high.
- “Transportation disaster” in Louisville, Kentucky, closes schools for a week. Jefferson County Public Schools started the year with a new bus routing system. Meant to alleviate a dire bus driver shortage, the district hired a consultant to develop a route network that could handle more than 60,000 kids with just over 600 drivers. On the first day of the new school year, that plan failed. Students arrived home hours late, the last student being dropped off just before 10 p.m. The logistical meltdown forced schools to close, and they largely stayed shuttered through Friday. At issue are complex routes that can only be followed using turn-by-turn instructions written on sheets of paper. Another major issue was that some routes were impossible to complete in the time required.
- Minneapolis City Council approves pay hikes for ride-share drivers. The Minneapolis City Council approved new rules Thursday that would make ride-share workers among the highest paid in the country—but they face a possible veto by Mayor Jacob Frey. The 7-5 vote was met with cheers from dozens of supporters, who have championed the measure as a victory for dignity and fair wages. Opponents, however, worry that the move could lead to unaffordable fares, hurt driver income and disproportionately affect lower income riders. In advance of the vote, Uber and Lyft threatened to vastly curtail service or pull out of Minneapolis should the city approve the ordinance—a threat they've made elsewhere but not always carried out.
- Colorado now prohibits medical debt from being included on credit reports. Under a new law, credit reporting companies must remove medical debt carried on specialized medical credit cards from Colorado consumers’ credit reports. The new law doesn’t eliminate the debt, but limits who can see it. A separate law passed earlier this year capped the interest rate Colorado residents can be charged on medical debt at 3%, though. An estimated 700,000 people in Colorado have medical debt in collections, which works against them if they need to take out a loan, said Julia Char Gilbert, a policy advocate at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. Some landlords and employers also check applicants’ credit reports, so an unpaid hospital bill can have repercussions for years afterward.
- Police say Amazon Ring isn't much of a crime fighter. Since 2018, the doorbell and security camera company Ring has signed up more than 800 law enforcement agencies as “partners,” offering them access to video footage recorded by its millions of customers’ internet-connected cameras across the U.S. through an app called Neighbors. But an NBC News Investigation has found—after interviews with 40 law enforcement agencies in eight states that have partnered with Ring for at least three months—that there is little concrete evidence that supports the company’s claim that installation of its doorbell cameras reduces burglaries by more than 50%.
- Deliveries in Boston via e-cargo bikes set to begin. More than a handful of businesses in the Allston, a Boston neighborhood, will soon be delivering packages via electric cargo bikes instead of cars or trucks, an initiative Mayor Michell Wu says will reduce pollution and improve street safety. Eight companies that make deliveries to and from the neighborhood are participating in the Boston Delivers pilot program, which will start in mid-September and run for at least a year. The city has seen a rise in delivery services following the pandemic, triggering “more congestion outside local businesses and double parking in bus, bike and vehicle travel lanes.”
- Gunmakers can be sued for marketing to young Illinoisans. Gov. J.B. Pritzker approved a measure last Saturday that would allow firearm retailers or manufacturers to be sued for marketing guns to people under 18 and promoting other improper marketing ploys geared toward the sale of weapons. The bill was signed a day after Pritzker and his Democratic allies in the Illinois General Assembly scored a close victory when the state Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, voted to uphold the state’s ban on certain high-powered guns and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
- Georgia first state to allow nurses to administer birth control implants. The Georgia Department of Public Health is kicking off its Power of Family Planning program, an initiative that aims to reduce unintended or complicated pregnancies. Registered nurses are now allowed to administer contraceptive implants, such as Nexplanon, into a patient’s arm. Previously, the implantable could only be inserted by a physician, a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant. Georgia is the first state to give registered nurses the leeway to perform this procedure. The contraceptive implant has been provided in public health department facilities for several years for free or at low cost. But patients in many rural communities lack access to the local public health department, which in many cases is the only provider of the service.
- Should Denver join other cities and hire a night mayor? New Mayor Mike Johnston has a lot of city positions to fill after taking the reins of Denver government less than a month ago, but he’s already voiced his interest in the possibility of adding another job to that stack. The potential new city job, should it be created, could come with a trendy nickname, too: night mayor. It’s a real position that exists—under different formal titles—in more than a dozen American cities from New Orleans to San Francisco. Just what the person filling the role does varies by municipality, but in most cases, it involves economic boosterism and problem-solving for restaurants, bars, clubs, art spaces and other businesses that do much of their work after dark.
Picture of the Week
driverless car crash at 26th and mission.— Eleni Balakrishnan (@miss_elenius) August 18, 2023
witnesses tell me the gray car had a green light on mission st and the cruise vehicle just stopped in the middle of the road coming down 26th.
car occupants appear okay. pic.twitter.com/9Q77GMTmZl
It has been a rough week for robotaxi companies in San Francisco. At least three traffic incidents involving the autonomous vehicles, including one with a fire truck, occurred this week. The accidents came shortly after the state granted unlimited approval for autonomous vehicle companies to expand their operations and start charging money for rides. On Thursday, San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu has asked the California Public Utilities Commission to pause the controversial unlimited expansion of robotaxis in the city. The filing argues that the panel failed to fully consider the impact of up to several thousand robotaxis on city streets under the state's environmental quality act or to tie approval to metrics addressing public safety hazards.
Government in Numbers
The percentage by which brand-name insulin and arthritis medication costs have increased over two decades, according to a new report from AARP. Drug prices have been increasing faster than the rate of inflation and are a “major factor” in driving Medicare Part D spending growth. The report looked at the 25 brand-name drugs with the highest total Medicare Part D spending in 2021 and found they were responsible for $80.9 billion in total Medicare Part D spending that year. “Higher government spending driven by drug price increases will affect all Americans in the form of higher taxes, cuts to public programs, or both,” the report warned. “Equally important, increased drug costs—if left unchecked—will prompt more older Americans to stop taking necessary medications, thus leading to poorer health outcomes and higher health care costs in the future.”
AVs are coming, whether local officials like it or not
California regulators recently lifted restrictions on driverless cars inSan Francisco, despite objections from local leaders. As autonomous vehicles come to more cities, these fights may be more common.
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The fallout from the MOVEit hack continues as more agencies announce breaches
A Colorado health department said recently more than 4 million patients’ data had been accessed. But the real challenge awaits state and local governments as they look to patch vulnerabilities before more criminals exploit them.
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What if we had fully funded safety net programs?
With 100% participation rates in fully funded social services, poverty nationwide would decrease by nearly a third and 4.8 million kids would be lifted out of poverty, according to a new study from the Urban Institute.
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A GOP bill would ban California’s pig measure and others like it
The proposal, which is part of the farm bill, would block states from passing laws that could change how agriculture is practiced in other states. Critics say it could upend hundreds of state and local laws.
BY KERY MURAKAMI
Three years since the start of the pandemic, unemployment insurance fraud is still a multibillion dollar problem
Several states have recently reported increases in fraudulent claims. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade systems, emerging threats are putting pressure on states to modernize even further.
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Keep it simple, experts tell feds on planned mileage fee experiment
States have already tested different approaches for how to replace gas taxes, but a federal pilot program mandated by the 2021 infrastructure law would be the biggest yet.
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‘IGNITE’ing an educational fire in U.S. jails
An initiative launched in a Michigan county jail has been embraced as a national model for reducing jail violence and inmate recidivism.
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Policing police drones: How regulations can protect privacy while expanding public safety
Without accountability measures in place, drones meant to act as first responders could push the boundaries of monitoring and surveillance.
BY KAITLYN LEVINSON
Feds open new round in $500M grant program for transportation tech
The second year of SMART grants will award another $100 million to state, local and tribal governments for safe, equitable and sustainable transportation solutions.
BY ELIZABETH DAIGNEAU