An Alabama newspaper publisher and reporter were arrested last week and charged with leaking evidence from the court in an article, alarming press freedom advocates who raised First Amendment concerns.
Escambia County District Attorney Stephen Billy filed the felony charges against Sherry Digmon, publisher and co-owner of the Atmore News in Atmore, Ala., and Don Fletcher, a reporter, based on an article published by the newspaper on 25 Oct.
Mr. Fletcher said in the article that Mr. Billy was investigating the local school board’s handling of federal coronavirus relief money. Citing documents obtained by the newspaper, Mr. Fletcher said Mr. Billy had issued a subpoena for financial records related to the investigation. It was not clear how the newspaper had 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.
A school accountant, Ashley Fore, was charged with the same felony after “providing grand jury investigation information to members of the media,” according to a criminal complaint.
The case is further complicated by Mrs. Digmon’s dual role: Not only does she publish the Atmore News, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of about 1,300, but she 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 board position to sell advertising to another of her publications, Atmore Magazine. the other accuses her of using her position to solicit paid advertisements from subordinates in the school system.
In both cases, Ms. Digmon had a “financial gain” of more than $2,500, the indictment said.
Press advocates have raised concerns about the charges related to the Atmore News article, saying newspapers were free to publish information about grand jury investigations as long as they did not use illegal means to obtain it.
“The First Amendment protects the right of newspapers to publish honest speech on matters of public concern — basically unequivocally,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
“If the Nixon administration couldn’t jail reporters who printed the Pentagon Papers,” Mr. Jaffer added, “the Alabama DA can’t jail reporters for writing stories about the Atmore, Alabama school board.”
The National Press Club, a professional body 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 a statement. “That’s exactly what Don Fletcher and Sherry Digmon did when they reported and published an article on October 25 about an investigation into a local school system’s use of federal Covid funds.”
Mr. Billy did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. He told another local paper, Atmore Advanceon Saturday that Ms. Digmon, Mr. Fletcher and Ms. Fore had broken the law by disclosing information to the grand jury.
“It’s not allowed,” Mr Billy told the paper, adding: “You just can’t do it and there’s no reason for it. Innocent people are exposed and it causes a lot of problems for people.”
Ernest White, a lawyer for Ms Digmon and Mr Fletcher, called the charges “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 had publicly supported.
“I can’t prove it was,” 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 disturbed by this because she is a strong Christian person. As far as I’m concerned, it obviously concerns me.”
Ms. Fore’s lawyer, C. Daniel White, also declined to comment.
The charges against Ms. Digmon and Mr. Fletcher came shortly after a case involving a local newspaper in Kansas that also raised First Amendment concerns.
In August, police and sheriff’s deputies searched the office of The Marion County Record — as well as the homes of its publisher and a city councilwoman — 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 county’s top attorney later said there was insufficient evidence to support the raid and that all devices and materials obtained during the investigation 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 both Kansas and Alabama “disturbing.”
“This idea of chasing the messenger is a dangerous idea,” he said, “and the press must do everything they can to resist.”