A small town Alabama newspaper publisher and reporter have been arrested for allegedly publishing a story based on confidential grand jury evidence.
Sherry Digmon, co-owner of the Atmore News, and reporter Donald Fletcher, published an article that revealed information about a grand jury investigation involving the local school system, according to prosecutors.
They were both arrested along with a bookkeeper at the Escambia County Board of Education.
The court documents do not specify what information about a grand jury investigation the paper is accused of publishing.
But on October 25, the paper published article saying the school system had received a subpoena seeking information about bonuses paid from pandemic relief funds.
Sherry Digmon, co-owner of the Atmore News in Alabama has been arrested for allegedly publishing a story based on confidential grand jury evidence along with one of her reporters
David Fletcher has also been accused of publishing a story about a grand jury investigation at Escambia County Board of Education
Another piece said authorities seized the phones of school board members, including Digmon, who voted against renewing the school superintendent’s contract.
Dennis Bailey, general counsel for the Alabama Press Association, said 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 added.
In over 40 years of handling media law matters, 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 said the school system’s bookkeeper and financial officer had received a subpoena to provide information about COVID-era bonuses paid to employees.
Another cited an unnamed source saying District Attorney Steve Billy, the prosecutor in both cases, aimed to prove school board members had violated the state Open Meetings Act.
Digmon, who is a board member of the school district, was additionally charged on Wednesday with violating state ethics law.
Escambia County Board of Education member Digmon faces an additional charge of violating an Alabama ethics law for allegedly using her school board position for personal gain by selling $2,500 worth of advertisements to the school system
Court records show that papers have also been filed against Atmore News co-owner Digmon seeking her impeachment
The indictment accused her 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.
Alabama ethics law prohibits public officials from soliciting money and valuables, although it makes an exception for normal business dealings.
Atmore News was launched as a community newspaper in June 2005
Court records also show impeachment papers were filed against her on Monday to try to remove her from her public position.
Telephone messages from AP to the newspaper and to a defense lawyer, representing both Digmon and Fletcher, were not returned.
Billy also did not return a telephone message and an email Wednesday seeking comment
The incident is latest to spark concerns over press freedom and follows a ‘gestapo’ -style police raid against a small town Kansas paper whose elderly owner subsequently died
Marion Police Department were accused of behaving like ‘third world dictators’ for storming the offices of The Marion County Record as well as 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 ostensibly after a local restaurant owner complained it had invaded her privacy.
But Meyer, who denied the claims, suggested the raid was more likely due to the newspaper’s aggressive coverage of local politics and issues as well as its examination of Police Chief Gideon Cody’s past work with the Kansas City, Missouri, police.
While last year in New Hampshire, the publisher of a weekly newspaper accused the state attorney general’s office of government overreach after she was arrested for allegedly publishing advertisements for local races without properly marking them as political advertising.