A newspaper publisher and reporter from Alabama were arrested, raising the alarm

An Alabama newspaper publisher and reporter were arrested last week and charged with revealing grand jury evidence in an article that alarmed press freedom advocates who raised First Amendment concerns.

Escambia County District Attorney Stephen Billy filed felony charges against Sherry Digmon, publisher and co-owner of the Atmore News in Atmore, Ala., and Don Fletcher, a reporter, based on article which the newspaper published on 25.10.

Mr. Fletcher reported in the article that Mr. Billy was investigating the local school board’s handling of federal money to help with the coronavirus pandemic. Referring to documents obtained by the newspaper, Mr. Fletcher reported that Mr. Billy issued a subpoena for financial records related to the investigation. It was not clear how the newspaper obtained the documents.

Ms. Digmon, 72, and Mr. Fletcher, 69, were arrested Friday and charged with one count of disclosing grand jury evidence in the article. They were released on $10,000 bonds.

The school’s bookkeeper, Ashley Fore, was charged with the same offense after she “provided information about the grand jury investigation to members of the media,” according to the criminal complaint.

The case is further complicated by Ms. Digmon’s dual role: she not only publishes the Atmore News, a weekly paper with a circulation of about 1,300 copies, but is also a member of the school board in question. She was also charged with two ethics violations related to her position on the school board.

One of the ethics charges accuses Ms. Digmon of using her position on the board to sell ads to her other publication, Atmore Magazine; another accuses her of using her position to solicit paid advertisements from underlings within the school system.

In both cases, Ms. Digmon had a “financial gain” of more than $2,500, the indictment said.

Press representatives expressed concern about the allegations related to the Atmore News article, saying the newspaper is free to publish information about grand jury investigations as long as it does not use illegal means to obtain it.

“The First Amendment protects the right of newspapers to publish truthful speech on matters of public interest — basically categorically,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight Institute on the First Amendment at Columbia University.

“If the Nixon administration couldn’t jail the reporters who printed the Pentagon Papers,” Mr. Jaffer added, “the Alabama attorney general’s office can’t jail the reporters for writing stories about the Atmore, Alabama, school board.”

The National Press Club, a professional organization for journalists, called on local authorities to drop the charges against Ms Digmon and Mr Fletcher.

“Journalists in the United States have the right and responsibility to report information of public interest to their communities,” the group said in statement. “That’s exactly what Don Fletcher and Sherry Digmon were doing when they reported and published an article on October 25th regarding an investigation into a local school system’s use of federal Covid funds.”

Mr Billy did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday. He told another local newspaper, Atmore Advanceon Saturday that Ms. Digmon, Mr. Fletcher and Ms. Fore broke the law by disclosing the grand jury information.

“It’s not allowed,” Billy told the newspaper, adding: “You just can’t do that, and there’s no reason to. Innocent people are exposed, and it creates a lot of problems for people.”

Ernest White, a lawyer for Ms. Digmon and Mr. Fletcher, called the allegations “politically motivated.”

He pointed out that Mrs. Digmon, as a member of the school board, had voted on October 12 not to renew the contract of the school superintendent, whom Mr. Billy publicly supported.

“I can’t prove it is,” said Mr. White. “But everything smells.”

Ms. Digmon declined to comment. Mr. Fletcher, reached by phone at the newspaper’s office, said Ms. Digmon was “obviously upset by this because she is a strong Christian woman. As for me, I’m clearly worried too.”

Ms. Fore’s lawyer, C. Daniel White, also declined to comment.

The charges against Ms. Digmon and Mr. Fletcher come shortly after a case involving a local newspaper in Kansas also raised First Amendment concerns.

In August, police and sheriff’s deputies searched the office of The Marion County Record — as well as editors’ homes and City Hall — seizing computers, cell phones and other materials.

The searches were part of an investigation into how the newspaper obtained and handled a document containing information about a local restaurateur and whether her privacy was violated in the process, authorities said.

The chief county prosecutor later said that there was insufficient evidence to support the raid and that all devices and materials obtained during the search would be returned.

Anthony L. Fargo, director of the Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies at Indiana University, called the actions of authorities in Kansas and Alabama “disturbing.”

“This idea of ​​going after the messenger is a dangerous idea,” he said, “and journalists must do everything they can to oppose it.”

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