An Alabama newspaper publisher and one of the outlet’s local reporters were arrested last week and charged with revealing grand jury proceedings in a case that involves the Escambia County school district.
Publisher Sherry Digmon, owner of Atmore News, and reporter Donald Fletcher now face felonies after stories involving subpoenas allegedly received by the Escambia County Board of Education appeared in the paper, Fox News Digital reports.
Digmon, who is also a member of the school board, published one article that claimed the subpoenas were related to bonuses that were paid from pandemic relief funds. School board members’ phones, including Digmon’s, were seized after they voted against renewing the school superintendent’s contract, a follow-up article stated.
What, specifically, the paper printed about the grand jury remains unclear.
“The reporting said the school system’s bookkeeper and financial officer had received a subpoena to provide information about COVID-era bonuses paid to employees,” according to Fox News Digital. “The Atmore News also cited an anonymous source who claimed District Attorney Steve Billy wanted to prove school board members violated the state Open Meetings Act.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), “an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide,” according to its website, urged Escambia’s local authorities to “drop all charges” against Digmon and Fletcher.
“CPJ is outraged by the arrest of Atmore News publisher Sherry Digmon and reporter Don Fletcher and calls on local authorities to immediately drop all charges against them,” said CPJ program coordinator Katherine Jacobsen. “They should not be prosecuted for simply doing their jobs and covering a matter of local interest, such as the allocation of school board funds.”
“Journalists play a crucial role in their local communities,” she continued. “Arresting them creates a chilling effect and is a gross misuse of taxpayer funds.”
Digmon was actually arrested twice in less than a week.
On Wednesday, the publisher caught a second charge for allegedly violating state ethics law.
“She is accused of using her school board position for personal gain and improperly soliciting a thing of value by selling $2,500 worth of advertisements to the school system,” according to Fox News Digital.
Following her second arrest, CPJ doubled down on its defense of Digmon and Fletcher and said it is “still investigating whether or not yesterday’s arrest of Sherry Digmon was in relation to her work as a school board member or her work at the Atmore News.”
“We stand by our concerns about the October 27 arrests of Digmon and Atmore News reporter Don Fletcher,” a CPJ spokesperson said. “Publishing leaked material is not a crime and journalists should not be arrested and charged for simply doing their jobs and reporting on matters of public interest.”
On Thursday the news staff at Atmore News detailed the initial arrests in an article titled, “No secrets.”
“Atmore News publisher and co-owner Sherry Digmon and Atmore News reporter Don Fletcher, both arrested last Friday — along with a bookkeeper for the county school system — for revealing grand jury secrets, were ordered Monday to refrain from publishing future stories about criminal and civil matters that might come before a grand jury, specifically those regarding the Escambia County Board of Education,” the news staff explained.
“In an initial appearance held Monday, October 30, before District Judge Eric Coale, Digmon and Fletcher signed statements acknowledging that, as a condition of their bonds, both would in the future have ‘no communications about ongoing criminal investigations including schools and other.’ Coale verbally added, ‘until they are public record,'” the article stated. “The journalists were arrested under the provisions of Alabama Criminal Code Section 12-16-216: ‘Grand juror, witness, etc., prohibited from revealing, disclosing, etc., form, nature, etc., of physical evidence or questions asked; no person to directly, indirectly, etc., by any means, obtain information as to physical evidence or questions asked; exception as to state prosecutions.'”
“Digmon, who was one of four school board members to vote against a new contract for Superintendent of Education Michele McClung, and Fletcher were released at 8:34 p.m. after surety bonds of $10,000 were posted for each,” the news staff added.
Alabama Press Association general counsel Dennis Bailey pointed to a Supreme Court ruling that appears to speak directly to the charges against Digmon and Fletcher.
The nation’s highest court, Bailey told the Associated Press on Wednesday, ruled the First Amendment gives “the news media a right to publish truthful information on matters of public concern, even if unlawfully acquired, provided the publisher did not participate in the unlawful conduct.”
“I do not know all the facts here, but based upon what I have seen so far, it is my opinion reporters who receive and publish unsolicited tips about the actual issuance and service of a grand jury subpoena do not violate Alabama grand jury secrecy laws unless they coerced someone to provide the information,” Bailey told the SP in an email.
He said he has “never seen a reporter arrested for publishing truthful information about the existence of a grand jury subpoena.”
Asked about Digmon’s second arrest, Bailey told Fox News Digital that his opinion hadn’t changed.
“My comments related to the [initial] complaints,” he said, “are not affected by the filing of other complaints about other charges.”
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