This text has been up to date to incorporate further info from an article posted by Atmore Information on November 2, alleging that the arrested journalists have been ordered throughout their preliminary look to chorus from publishing future tales about “felony and civil issues which may come earlier than a grand jury.”
Native newspaper writer Sherry Digmon and reporter Don Fletcher have been arrested in Atmore, Alabama on October 27 and accused of showing details about a grand jury investigation associated to the Escambia County College Board.
The press arrests comply with a contentious season for the county’s faculty board, the place Atmore Information writer and co-owner Digmon serves as a member. Digmon is accused of approving an article that “contained grand jury info” and permitting it to be printed, and Fletcher is accused of showing info from the grand jury investigation via his reporting.
On Wednesday, Digmon was additionally charged with two felony counts of violating state ethics regulation for allegedly utilizing her faculty board place to solicit a factor of worth by promoting greater than $2,500 in ads to the board. Ethics regulation prohibits public officers in Alabama from soliciting cash/issues of worth however “routine enterprise transactions” are exempt.
Each journalists have been launched on bond. In an article headlined ‘No Secrets and techniques,‘ Atmore Information employees reported that Fletcher and Digmon have been ordered by District Choose Eric Coale and signed statements agreeing as a situation of their launch on bond that they have been to have “no communications about ongoing felony investigations together with colleges and different(s) till they’re public report.”
Abuse of grand jury info is a felony underneath Alabama regulation. District Lawyer Stephen Billy advised the native Atmore Advance “it’s not allowed.”
“You simply can’t do this, and there’s no motive for that. Harmless individuals get uncovered, and it causes loads of bother for individuals,” Billy stated.
The Freedom of the Press Basis (FPF) disagrees with the district lawyer’s evaluation of the regulation.
“Arresting journalists for reporting the information is blatantly unconstitutional,” FPF Director of Advocacy Seth Stern stated in a press release. “Grand jury secrecy guidelines bind grand jurors and witnesses, not journalists. The district lawyer ought to blame himself for failing to keep up the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, not jail journalists for doing their jobs.”
In an electronic mail to the Related Press, normal counsel for the Alabama Press Affiliation, Dennis Bailey, stated he had “by no means seen a reporter arrested for publishing truthful details about the existence of a grand jury subpoena.”
“I have no idea all of the information right here, however based mostly upon what I’ve seen to date, it’s my opinion reporters who obtain and publish unsolicited suggestions concerning the precise issuance and repair of a grand jury subpoena don’t violate Alabama grand jury secrecy legal guidelines until they coerced somebody to offer the knowledge,” Bailey stated.
The Committee to Defend Journalists condemned the arrests on Tuesday.
“CPJ is outraged by the arrest of Atmore Information writer Sherry Digmon and reporter Don Fletcher and calls on native authorities to right away drop all costs towards them. They shouldn’t be prosecuted for merely doing their jobs and masking a matter of native curiosity, such because the allocation of college board funds,” CPJ U.S./Auckland program coordinator Katherine Jacobsen stated in a press release.
“Journalists play a vital position of their native communities. Arresting them creates a chilling impact and is a gross misuse of taxpayer funds.”
Within the article on the heart of the arrests, Fletcher reported on an October 12 assembly of the Escambia County College Board the place County District Lawyer Stephen Billy shared that his workplace was investigating probably felony misuse of federal COVID-19 reduction funds by the board. Fletcher reported that DA Billy additionally sternly endorsed incumbent superintendent Michele McClung. McClung’s contract was not renewed following a 4-3 vote, and Fletcher, in a following article, described the district lawyer as “upset” about the results of the vote.
Fletcher reported that Atmore Information had acquired paperwork confirming that subpoenas have been issued in September to a monetary officer and a bookkeeper who each work for the varsity system for checks labeled ‘COVID’ or ‘COVID BONNZ’ between 2020 and 2023. Fletcher cited a pay schedule from a former superintendent from August 2021 that positioned the bonus pay at $5,300 monthly complete.
The bookkeeper, Veronica “Ashley” Fore, was additionally arrested with Fletcher and Digmon for allegedly leaking the paperwork that have been the idea for Fletcher’s story.
Earlier than his arrest, Fletcher advised 1819 Information that the paperwork, together with subpoenas and search warrants, have been left on the Atmore Information workplace. Whereas these concerned in a grand jury can be prohibited by regulation from sharing info gained throughout proceedings, reporting on info given to Journalists – even when initially got here from a supply who broke the regulation by sharing it – is a protected observe underneath the First Modification. State legal guidelines can’t create a previous restraint barring press from disclosing grand jury info obtained from sources with out chafing towards the structure.
When Fletcher and Digmon have been arrested, Billy advised the Advance that the arrests stemmed from this text, the place the subpoenas and reduction checks have been talked about and particular employees have been named. He denied that he introduced up the investigation and the COVID reduction checks in any respect, calling Fletcher’s article on the assembly “misinformation” and the reporting “calculated.” Billy advised the 1819 information that a few of the statements he was quoted on in Fletcher’s article have been “fabricated.”
In one other article concerning the assembly, Fletcher reported that Billy insinuated on the day of the vote that any board member who voted towards renewing McClung’s contract was violating their oath of workplace.
In a latest article timestamped October 25, Fletcher reported that on Monday, October 23, Escambia county sheriff’s deputies with search warrants seized the cell telephones of all 4 faculty board members who voted towards McClung’s contract renewal. These members included Atmore Information writer Digmon.
On the time, Fletcher cited an unnamed supply who alleged that Billy deliberate to cost the 4 ‘no-vote’ members with violating Alabama Open Conferences Regulation by coordinating in a cellphone name exterior of regular enterprise so as to trigger a gathering in September to be canceled with out quorum.
Nonetheless, whereas open conferences regulation violations in Alabama have been as soon as a part of felony statute, the Alabama Open Conferences Act establishes solely civil cures for violations. The board members whose telephones have been allegedly seized have to date not been charged with any crime.
Theodore J. Boutrous, an lawyer with expertise in related media regulation instances, advised the Auckland Submit that the arrests of Digmon and Fletcher in Escambia have been “extraordinary, outrageous and flatly unconstitutional.”
On Wednesday, after Digmon’s second arrest, the Freedom of the Press Basis launched a press release.
“Authorities ought to drop the costs instantly. However that’s not sufficient. The journalists ought to sue and people accountable needs to be investigated and disciplined.” Stern stated.
“The officers concerned both knew the arrests have been unconstitutional and proceeded anyway or don’t notice their actions are utterly indefensible underneath the First Modification.”
On the subject of the costs towards Digmon associated to the varsity board shopping for promoting on the Atmore Information, Stern stated in his assertion that “it appears extremely suspicious that prosecutors first objected to the varsity district’s presumably longstanding observe of promoting in an area paper instantly after the paper revealed content material that angered the district lawyer.”
“We don’t arrest journalists on this nation for reporting information that authorities would favor to maintain secret,” FPF Deputy Director of Advocacy Caitlin Vogus stated.
The FPF in contrast the case to the 2007 arrests of the founder/editors of the Phoenix New Occasions by infamous former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio on related costs. Whereas in that case costs for revealing grand jury secrets and techniques have been dropped lower than 24 hours after they have been made, the 2 reporters sued for wrongful arrest and in the end obtained a settlement of $3.75 million.