Alabama Journalists Arrested: A prosecutor in Alabama stirred controversy by arresting a publisher and reporter on October 27 for disclosing “grand jury evidence.” Press freedom groups across the United States strongly condemned the arrests.
Seth Stern, the advocacy director for the Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF), emphasized the unconstitutionality of arresting journalists for reporting news. Stern argued that grand jury secrecy rules are meant for grand jurors and witnesses, not journalists, and placed responsibility on the district attorney for failing to maintain the secrecy of grand jury proceedings.
Sherry Digmon, co-owner and publisher of Atmore News, along with reporter Don Fletcher, faced accusations from Escambia County District Attorney Stephen Billy. They were charged with “breaking the law” by publishing jury information deemed secret by statute. The charges stemmed from an October 25 Atmore News article reporting on Billy’s investigation into the potential misallocation of federal COVID funds to former school system employees.
The same edition also revealed that sheriff’s deputies seized Digmon’s and District 4 school board member Cindy Jackson’s phones through search warrants. Notably, Digmon, a school board member, and Jackson voted against a new contract for the school district’s superintendent.
Days later, on November 1, Digmon faced another arrest, this time for a “felony ethics violation.” The prosecutor alleged that Digmon used her position for personal financial gain by selling ads to Atmore News, totaling $2,500 or more.
Stern highlighted that Alabama’s grand jury secrecy statute does not constitute a prior restraint barring the press from disclosing information obtained from sources. While it prohibits outsiders from threatening or bribing grand jury participants, Stern argued against distorting the vague provision to criminalize routine journalism, citing it as a clear violation of the First Amendment.
Dennis Bailey, general counsel for the Alabama Press Association, noted the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition that the First Amendment grants the news media the right to publish truthful information on matters of public concern, even if unlawfully acquired, provided the publisher did not participate in the unlawful conduct.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) joined the outcry, expressing outrage over the arrests. CPJ called on local authorities to drop all charges against Digmon and Fletcher, emphasizing that journalists should not face prosecution for doing their jobs, covering matters of local interest, such as the allocation of school board funds. CPJ’s U.S. and Canada program coordinator, Katherine Jacobsen, underlined the crucial role journalists play in local communities and condemned the arrests as a gross misuse of taxpayer funds.