A newspaper editor and a reporter in Alabama were arrested last week and charged with revealing grand jury evidence in an article, alarming press freedom advocates who raised concerns about the First Amendment.
Escambia County District Attorney Stephen Billy filed felony charges against Sherry Digmon, editor and co-owner of Atmore News in Atmore, Alabama, and Don Fletcher, a reporter, based on an article the newspaper published on October 1st. 25.
Fletcher reported in the article that Billy had been investigating the local school board’s handling of federal coronavirus relief money. Citing documents the newspaper had obtained, Fletcher reported that Billy had issued a subpoena to obtain financial records related to the investigation. It was unclear how the newspaper acquired the documents.
Ms. Digmon, 72, and Mr. Fletcher, 69, were arrested Friday and charged with one count each of revealing grand jury evidence in the article. They were released on $10,000 bail.
An accountant at the school, Ashley Fore, was charged with the same felony after she “provided information from the grand jury investigation to members of the media,” according to a criminal complaint.
The case is further complicated by Ms. Digmon’s dual role: not only does she publish the Atmore News, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of around 1,300, but she is also a member of the school board in question. She was also accused of 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 of directors to sell ads in another of her publications, Atmore magazine; the other accuses her of using her position to solicit paid advertisements from subordinates within the school system.
In both cases, Ms. Digmon made a “financial gain” of more than $2,500, according to the indictment.
Press advocates have expressed concern about the charges related to the Atmore News article, saying that newspapers were free to publish information about the 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 truthful speech on matters of public concern, basically categorically,» said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
“If the Nixon administration couldn’t jail journalists who printed the Pentagon Papers,” Jaffer added, “the Alabama district attorney can’t jail journalists for writing stories about the school board in Atmore, Alabama.”
The National Press Club, a professional organization of journalists, has called on local authorities to drop 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 were doing when they reported and published an article on October 25 about an investigation into a local school system’s use of federal Covid funds.»
Billy did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. On Saturday he told another local newspaper, The Atmore Advance, that Ms. Digmon, Mr. Fletcher and Ms. Fore had broken the law by revealing grand jury information.
“It’s not allowed,” Mr. Billy told the newspaper, adding: “You just can’t do that and there’s no reason for it. Innocent people are exposed and it causes a lot of problems for them.”
Earnest White, an attorney for Digmon and Fletcher, called the charges “politically motivated.”
He noted that Ms. Digmon, as a member of the school board, had voted on October 12 to not renew the contract of the superintendent of schools, whom Mr. Billy had publicly supported.
«I can’t prove that it was,» Mr. White said. «But everything smells bad.»
Ms. Digmon declined to comment. Mr. Fletcher, reached by telephone at the newspaper office, said Ms. Digmon was “obviously disturbed by this because she is a strong Christian person. As far as I’m concerned, I’m obviously worried too.”
Ms. Fore’s attorney, 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 also raised First Amendment concerns.
In August, police officers and sheriff’s deputies searched The Marion County Record’s office, as well as the homes of its editor and a city councilwoman, collecting computers, cellphones 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 his privacy was violated in the process, authorities said.
The county’s top prosecutor later said there was insufficient evidence to support the raid and that all devices and materials obtained in 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 both Kansas and Alabama “disturbing.”
«This idea of chasing the messenger is dangerous,» he said, «and the press must do everything it can to fight it.»