An Alabama newspaper publisher and reporter were arrested last week and charged with leaking evidence to a grand jury in an article, alarming press freedom advocates who have raised concerns about the First Amendment .
Escambia County Prosecutor Stephen Billy filed criminal charges against Sherry Digmon, the publisher and co-owner of Atmore News in Atmore, Alabama, and Don Fletcher, a reporter, based on an article that the newspaper published on October 25.
Mr. Fletcher reported in the article that Mr. Billy had investigated the local school board’s handling of federal coronavirus pandemic relief money. Citing documents obtained by the newspaper, Mr. Fletcher reported that Mr. Billy had issued a subpoena for financial records related to the investigation. It is unclear how the newspaper acquired these documents.
Ms. Digmon, 72, and Mr. Fletcher, 69, were arrested Friday and charged with one count each of revealing evidence to the grand jury in the article. They were released on $10,000 bail.
A school accountant, Ashley Fore, was charged with the same offense after she “provided information about the grand jury investigation to members of the media,” according to a criminal complaint.
The matter is further complicated by Ms. Digmon’s dual role: she not only publishes Atmore News, a weekly with a circulation of approximately 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 advertisements in another of her publications, Atmore Magazine; the other accuses him of using his 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, the indictment states.
Press advocates raised concerns about accusations related to the Atmore News article, saying newspapers were free to publish information about grand jury investigations as long as they did not use means illegal to obtain them.
“The First Amendment protects the right of newspapers to publish truthful speech on matters of public concern – essentially categorically,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
“If the Nixon administration could not imprison journalists who printed the Pentagon Papers“, Mr. Jaffer added, “the Alabama prosecutor cannot imprison journalists for writing articles 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 A declaration. “That’s exactly what Don Fletcher and Sherry Digmon were doing when they reported and published an article on October 25 regarding 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 newspaper: The Atmore AdvanceSaturday that Ms. Digmon, Mr. Fletcher and Ms. Fore broke the law by revealing information to the grand jury.
“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 people.
Earnest White, a lawyer for Ms. Digmon and Mr. Fletcher, called the accusations “politically motivated.”
He noted that Ms. Digmon, as a member of the school board, had voted on October 12 not to renew the schools superintendent’s contract, which Mr. Billy had publicly supported.
“I can’t prove that was the case,” Mr. White said. “But it all smells.”
Ms. Digmon declined to comment. Mr. Fletcher, reached by telephone at the newspaper’s office, said Ms. Digmon was “obviously disturbed by this because she is a strong Christian.” As far as I’m concerned, I’m obviously 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 Kansas newspaper also raised First Amendment concerns.
In August, police officers and sheriff’s deputies raided the Marion County Record office — as well as the homes of its editor-in-chief and a city councilwoman — collecting 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 prosecutor later said that there was not enough evidence to support the raid and that all devices and materials obtained during the research would be returned.
Anthony L. Fargo, director of the Center for the Study of International Media Law and Policy at Indiana University, called the actions of authorities in Kansas and Alabama “troubling.”
“This idea of going after the messenger is a dangerous idea,” he said, “and the press needs to do everything it can to combat that idea.” »