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An Alabama Newspaper Publisher and Reporter Are Arrested, Raising Alarms

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A newspaper writer and reporter in Alabama had been arrested final week and charged with disclosing grand jury proof in an article, alarming press freedom advocates who raised First Modification issues.

The Escambia County district lawyer, Stephen Billy, introduced the felony prices in opposition to Sherry Digmon, the writer and co-owner of Atmore Information in Atmore, Ala., and Don Fletcher, a reporter, primarily based on an article that the newspaper printed on Oct. 25.

Mr. Fletcher reported within the article that Mr. Billy had been investigating the native faculty board’s dealing with of federal coronavirus pandemic aid cash. Citing paperwork the newspaper had obtained, Mr. Fletcher reported that Mr. Billy had issued a subpoena for monetary information associated to the investigation. It was not clear how the newspaper had acquired the paperwork.

Ms. Digmon, 72, and Mr. Fletcher, 69, had been arrested on Friday and charged with one depend every of showing grand jury proof within the article. They had been launched on $10,000 bonds.

A college bookkeeper, Ashley Fore, was charged with the identical felony offense after she “offered grand jury investigation data to members of the media,” in line with a legal criticism.

The case is additional difficult by Ms. Digmon’s twin function: She not solely publishes Atmore Information, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of about 1,300, she can be a member of the varsity board in query. She was additionally indicted on two ethics violations associated to her place on the varsity board.

One of many ethics prices accuses Ms. Digmon of utilizing her board place to promote advertisements in one other of her publications, Atmore Journal; the opposite accuses her of utilizing her place to solicit paid advertisements from subordinates inside the faculty system.

In each instances, Ms. Digmon had a “monetary achieve” of greater than $2,500, the indictment acknowledged.

Press advocates have raised issues concerning the prices associated to the Atmore Information article, saying newspapers had been free to publish details about grand jury investigations so long as they didn’t use unlawful means to acquire it.

“The First Modification protects the suitable of newspapers to publish truthful speech about issues of public concern — mainly categorically,” mentioned Jameel Jaffer, the chief director of the Knight First Modification Institute at Columbia College.

“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 tales concerning the Atmore, Alabama, faculty board.”

The Nationwide Press Membership, an expert group for journalists, has known as on the native authorities to drop the costs in opposition to Ms. Digmon and Mr. Fletcher.

“Journalists in the USA have the suitable and the duty to report data of public curiosity to their communities,” the group mentioned in a statement. “That’s precisely what Don Fletcher and Sherry Digmon had been doing once they reported and printed an article on Oct. 25 relating to an investigation into an area faculty system’s use of federal Covid funds.”

Mr. Billy didn’t reply to requests for touch upon Thursday. He informed one other native newspaper, The Atmore Advance, on Saturday that Ms. Digmon, Mr. Fletcher and Ms. Fore had damaged the regulation by revealing grand jury data.

“It’s not allowed,” Mr. Billy informed the newspaper, including: “You simply can’t do this, and there’s no purpose for that. Harmless individuals get uncovered, and it causes lots of hassle for individuals.”

Earnest White, a lawyer for Ms. Digmon and Mr. Fletcher, known as the costs “politically motivated.”

He identified that Ms. Digmon, as a college board member, had voted on Oct. 12 to not renew the contract of the colleges superintendent, whom Mr. Billy had publicly supported.

“I can’t show that it was,” Mr. White mentioned. “However it all smells.”

Ms. Digmon declined to remark. Mr. Fletcher, reached by telephone on the newspaper workplace, mentioned that Ms. Digmon was “clearly disturbed by this as a result of she’s a robust Christian individual. So far as me, I’m clearly involved, too.”

Ms. Fore’s lawyer, C. Daniel White, additionally declined to remark.

The costs in opposition to Ms. Digmon and Mr. Fletcher have come not lengthy after a case involving an area newspaper in Kansas additionally raised First Modification issues.

In August, cops and sheriff’s deputies searched the workplace of The Marion County Report — in addition to the houses of its editor and a metropolis councilwoman — accumulating computer systems, cellphones and different supplies.

The searches had been a part of an investigation into how the newspaper obtained and dealt with a doc containing details about an area restaurateur and whether or not her privateness was violated within the course of, the authorities mentioned.

The county’s high prosecutor later mentioned that there had not been adequate proof to help the raid that each one the gadgets and supplies obtained within the search can be returned.

Anthony L. Fargo, director of the Middle for Worldwide Media Legislation and Coverage Research at Indiana College, known as the authorities’ actions in each Kansas and Alabama “disturbing.”

“This concept of going after the messenger is a harmful thought,” he mentioned, “and the press must do no matter it might probably to combat again in opposition to it.”

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