A small-town Alabama newspaper publisher and reporter has been arrested for allegedly publishing a story based on confidential grand jury evidence.
Atmore News co-owner Sherry Digmon and reporter Donald Fletcher published an article that prosecutors say revealed information about a grand jury investigation involving the local school system.
They were both arrested along with an accountant at the Escambia County Board of Education.
The court documents do not specify what information the newspaper is accused of providing.
But on Oct. 25, the newspaper published an article saying the school system had received a subpoena seeking information about bonuses paid from pandemic relief funds.
Sherry Digmon, co-owner of Atmore News in Alabama, has been arrested for allegedly publishing a story with one of her reporters based on confidential grand jury evidence
David Fletcher has also been accused of publishing a story about a grand jury investigation into the Escambia County Board of Education
Another piece reported that authorities seized the phones of school board members, including Digmon, who voted against renewing the school principal’s contract.
Dennis Bailey, general counsel of the Alabama Press Association, said the First Amendment “gives the news media the right to publish truthful information on matters of public interest, even if unlawfully obtained, provided the publisher did not participate to the unlawful behavior.
“I don’t know all the facts here, but based on what I have seen so far, I believe that reporters who receive and publish unsolicited tips about the actual issuance and service of a grand jury subpoena are not violating Alabama’s secrecy laws violate. unless they forced someone to provide the information,” Bailey added.
In more than four decades of covering media law cases, Bailey said he had “never seen a reporter arrested for publishing truthful information about the existence of a grand jury subpoena.”
One of the articles published stated that the school system’s bookkeeper and financial officer had received a subpoena seeking information about COVID-era bonuses paid to employees.
Another quoted an unnamed source as saying that District Attorney Steve Billy, the prosecutor in both cases, wanted to prove that school board members had violated the state’s Open Meetings Act.
Digmon, a school district board member, was additionally charged Wednesday with violating state ethics laws.
Digmon, a member of the Escambia County Board of Education, faces an additional charge of violating an Alabama ethics law for allegedly using her position on the school board for personal gain by submitting $2,500 in advertising to the school system to sell
Court records show papers have also been filed against Digmon, co-owner of Atmore News, seeking his ouster
The indictment accused her of using her position on the school board for personal gain and improperly soliciting anything of value by selling $2,500 worth of advertisements to the school system.
Alabama ethics law prohibits public officials from soliciting money and valuables, although an exception is made for normal business transactions.
Atmore News was launched in June 2005 as a community newspaper
Court records also show that impeachment papers were filed against her on Monday in an effort to remove her from her public position.
Phone messages from AP to the newspaper and to an attorney representing both Digmon and Fletcher were not returned.
Billy also did not return a phone message and an email requesting comment on Wednesday
The incident is the latest to raise concerns about press freedom and follows a “gestapo” style police raid on a newspaper in a small town in Kansas, whose elderly owner subsequently died.
Marion police were accused of acting like “Third World dictatorships” for storming the offices of The Marion County Record and the home of its 98-year-old co-owner.
Publisher Eric Meyer said the stress of the ordeal drove his mother Joan to her death. Police swooped on the paper, apparently after a local restaurant owner complained that it had violated her privacy.
But Meyer, who denied the claims, suggested the raid was more likely because of the newspaper’s aggressive coverage of local politics and issues, as well as the investigation of Police Chief Gideon Cody’s previous work with the Kansas City, Missouri, police department.
While in New Hampshire last year, the publisher of a weekly newspaper accused the attorney general’s office of overreach after she was arrested for allegedly publishing local race ads without properly marking them as political ads.