GUEST BLOG / By media reports--Atmore News publisher and co-owner Sherry Digmon and Atmore News reporter Don Fletcher were arrested recently for revealing Escambia County Grand Jury investigation secrets. Atmore is a city in southern Alabama with a population of 36,000.
While it’s illegal for a grand juror, witness or court officer to disclose grand-jury proceedings, it’s not a crime for a media outlet to publish such leaked material, provided the material was obtained by legal means, legal experts said. Theodore J. Boutrous, an attorney who has represented media organizations, called the Alabama case “extraordinary, outrageous and flatly unconstitutional.”
Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said the Atmore, Alabama arrests follow a number of other recent cases in which local prosecutors have used warrants, threats and criminal proceedings to harass or pressure journalists.
Such prosecutions can be costly, especially for small news organizations, she said. They also serve as “a dead crow on a fence,” a warning to would-be leakers and other journalists that they will face legal jeopardy if they disclose secret or sensitive information or pursue aggressive investigations.
Sherry Digmon, the Atmore paper’s publisher and co-owner, is also a member of the county school board. She recently voted against renewing the contract of the county education superintendent — an official who was publicly supported by Stephen Billy, the district attorney.
Reached at the newspaper’s offices on Wednesday, Digmon declined to discuss the case. “I wish I could,” she said. “I would rather not answer. I can only refer you to my attorney."