Attacks on the Press

Newspaper Publisher and Reporter Arrested, Accused of Revealing Grand Jury Information

Escambia County Sheriff's Office photos of Atmore News publisher Sherry Digmon (left) and reporter Don Fletcher (right)
Escambia County Sheriff’s Office photos of Atmore News publisher Sherry Digmon (left) and reporter Don Fletcher (right) taken after their arrests on Oct.27. (Courtesy of Escambia County Sheriff’s Office)

By The Associated Press

ATMORE, Ala. (AP) — A smalltown newspaper publisher and reporter in Alabama were arrested after authorities accused them of publishing an article that revealed information about a grand jury investigation involving the local school system.

Court records show Sherry Digmon, an owner of the Atmore News and a member of the local school board, and reporter Donald Fletcher were both arrested, along with a bookkeeper at the school system.

Digmon was also arrested Wednesday on a separate charge of violating state ethics law. 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.

District Attorney Steve Billy, the prosecutor in both cases, did not return an telephone message and an email Wednesday seeking comment.

The court documents don’t say specifically what information about a grand jury investigation the paper is accused of publishing. On Oct. 25, the paper published article saying the school system had received a subpoena seeking information about bonuses paid from pandemic relief funds. 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 Wednesday that the U.S. Supreme Court has 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 wrote in an email.

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 Billy aimed to prove school board members had violated the state Open Meetings Act.

Telephone messages to the newspaper and to a defense lawyer, representing both Digmon and Fletcher, were not returned.

Court records also show impeachment papers were filed against Digmon on Monday to try to remove her from her public position.