Monday, March 4, 2024

A newspaper publisher and reporter in Alabama were arrested last week and charged with disclosing grand jury evidence in an article, alarming press freedom advocates who raised First Amendment concerns.

The Escambia County district attorney, Stephen Billy, brought the felony charges against Sherry Digmon, the publisher and co-owner of Atmore News in Atmore, Ala., and Don Fletcher, a reporter, based on an article that the newspaper published on Oct. 25.

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

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

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

The case is further complicated by Ms. Digmon’s dual role: She not only publishes Atmore News, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of about 1,300, she is also a member of the school board in question. She was also indicted on 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 ads in another of her publications, Atmore Magazine; the other accuses her of using her position to solicit paid ads from subordinates within the school system.

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

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 truthful speech about matters of public concern — basically categorically,” said Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

“If the Nixon administration couldn’t imprison journalists who printed the Pentagon Papers,” Mr. Jaffer added, “the Alabama D.A. can’t imprison journalists for writing stories about the Atmore, Alabama, school board.”

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

“Journalists in the United States have the right and the responsibility to report information of public interest to their communities,” the group said in a statement. “That is exactly what Don Fletcher and Sherry Digmon were doing when they reported and published an article on Oct. 25 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, The Atmore Advance, on Saturday 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 that. Innocent people get exposed, and it causes a lot of trouble for people.”

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

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

“I can’t prove that it was,” Mr. White said. “But it all smells.”

Ms. Digmon declined to comment. Mr. Fletcher, reached by phone at the newspaper office, said that Ms. Digmon was “obviously disturbed by this because she’s a strong Christian person. As far as me, I’m obviously concerned, too.”

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

The charges against Ms. Digmon and Mr. Fletcher have come not long after a case involving a local newspaper in Kansas also raised First Amendment concerns.

In August, police officers and sheriff’s deputies searched the office of The Marion County Record — 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 her privacy was violated in the process, the authorities said.

The county’s top prosecutor later said that there had not been sufficient evidence to support the raid and that all the 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 authorities’ actions in both Kansas and Alabama “disturbing.”

“This idea of going after the messenger is a dangerous idea,” he said, “and the press needs to do whatever it can to fight back against it.”

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