Police arrested a southwestern Alabama publisher and reporter when they published an article containing what officials say was confidential grand-jury evidence, the Washington Post reports. Press freedom advocates characterized the arrests as an unconstitutional attack on the news media. Publisher Sherry Digmon and reporter Don Fletcher of the Atmore News were arrested last week after a story by Fletcher disclosed details of an investigation into the local school board’s payments to seven former school-system employees. Digmon and Fletcher were charged by the Escambia County district attorney with revealing grand-jury proceedings, a felony under Alabama law..
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 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 arrests follow a number of other recent cases in which local prosecutors have used warrants, threats and criminal proceedings to harass or pressure journalists. Digmon, the Atmore paper’s publisher and co-owner, is 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.