Lyon County court action pursues suppression of press freedom

EMPORIA – Another incident to suppress the freedom of the press is underway in Kansas.

Six months after a police raid at a Marion, Ks., newspaper raised a national debate over constitutional protections of a free press, a Lyon County judge will hear arguments to decide whether a former city employee now threatening to sue the City of Garnett can be granted a protection order against the newspaper publisher questioning her about the story.

Lyon County District Judge Jeffry Larson denied the order due to possible constitutional considerations, and scheduled a hearing on the matter for Friday, Feb. 9.

Sherry Harrison, who lives in Emporia but worked for a short time in Garnett, filed the protection from stalking order Jan. 29 against Anderson County Review publisher Dane Hicks after an exchange of emails in which Hicks requested Harrison’s comments for stories on a November resignation letter in which she demanded severance for the equivalent of four months’ pay and benefits.

Sherry Harrison is the former economic development director for Garnett/Anderson County.

Harrison worked as the Garnett/Anderson County economic development director about six weeks before issuing the letter, maintaining she was emotionally traumatized by the continued influence of the former development director, Julie Turnipseed, who Harrison said refused to abdicate the position when Harrison came on board. Harrison also charged city management refused to force Turnipseed to abandon the post. She said she had left a higher-paying position and turned down other jobs to take the job in Garnett, and had been financially distressed by the situation she said she was compelled to leave.

Harrison worked for less than a year as the director of Ignite Emporia, a development arm of the local chamber of commerce, a position she left in May 2023 according to her LinkedIn account. She was hired in Garnett in October.

In her petition for the protection order against Hicks, Harrison summarized her experience in Garnett and said Hicks’ news coverage was harassing and libelous and contained “blatant lies” about her.

“His articles are intentionally harassing and they have tormented me to the point that I am unemployable,” Harrison said in her petition. “The man is unwell, unstable, and one scary dude.”

Dane Hicks is publisher of the Anderson County Review

Hicks said copies of emails to be introduced at the hearing show there was no harassment.

“I’m covering a story about the threat of a lawsuit against our city and a demand for public funds by an ex-employee under odd circumstances,” Hicks said. “I offered her the opportunity to comment if she wanted to. That’s not harassment. That’s a reporter trying to do a fair job.”

Judge Larson noted the potential conflicts of First Amendment free press concerns over Harrison’s petition, and said the court needed more information before granting it.

“The court recognizes constitutional protections may be an issue in this matter and therefore declines to issue temporary restraining orders before the parties have the opportunity to present evidence and argument regarding the allegations contained in the petition,” Larson wrote.

The issue arises after the Marion County Record was raided by law enforcement officers in August 2023 on a warrant signed by a magistrate judge on allegations of identity theft from a local business woman that were later found to be false. The warrant authorized police to seize the newspaper’s computers, cell phones and other equipment required to produce its product, which authorities held for several days, generating nationwide criticism of the move and raising press freedom issues to a new level of public discourse. 

Joan Meyer, the 98-year-old co-publisher of the Record, died of cardiac arrest a day after officers raided her home and the newspaper to seize the equipment. Meyer’s vehement protests to officers as they took equipment from her house was captured in a home security video that later went viral on social media.

Dan Thalmann is the owner/publisher of the Washington County News and is a Past President of the Kansas Press Association. He has won numerous journalism awards in many categories over the years, including multiple awards as the best mid-sized weekly newspaper in Kansas.