ATMORE, Ala. — When Don Fletcher checked the mailbox outside his newspaper’s office on Main Street in late September, he found a little gold mine waiting for him.

Don Fletcher, a reporter for the weekly Atmore (Ala.) News, was arrested this fall after reporting on a grand jury subpoena involving federal COVID-19 relief funds and the local county board of education. Paul Farhi/The Washington Post

Folded up inside was a copy of a grand-jury subpoena served on two employees of the local school system. The confidential document indicated that a criminal investigation into potential financial abuse was underway – a solid lead for a veteran reporter like Fletcher.

It took a couple of weeks to confirm, but Fletcher soon broke the news in the weekly Atmore News that officials were probing the Escambia County Board of Education’s handling of federal COVID-19 relief funds. What happened next, though, lifted Fletcher’s story far beyond this town nestled amid cotton fields north of the Florida panhandle.

Days later, the local district attorney ordered the arrest of Fletcher and his boss, Sherry Digmon, the News’ publisher and co-owner. He charged both with violating a state law that prohibits the disclosure of grand-jury information – a felony punishable by up to three years in prison.

The reporter, 69, and publisher, 72, were taken to the county lockup by police officers they had known for years. As a courtesy, the deputies waited until they were out of public view before placing handcuffs on them.

The arrests shocked legal scholars and press advocates, who say it’s a violation of the First Amendment to prosecute a newspaper for reporting the news. More specifically, they argue that District Attorney Stephen M. Billy misapplied Alabama’s secrecy law, which criminalizes leaks by anyone directly involved with a grand jury – jurors, witnesses, court officials – but not news outlets that publish the information.


American courts have consistently upheld the right to publish leaks as long as the information is obtained lawfully. The most famous precedent is the Supreme Court’s 1971 decision that cleared the way for the New York Times and Washington Post to publish the classified “Pentagon Papers.”

Sherry Digmon, publisher and co-owner of the Atmore (Ala.) News was arrested with reporter Don Fletcher. Paul Farhi/The Washington Post

The Atmore case is “alarming” because it criminalizes reporting, said Kirstin McCudden, a vice president of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. The incident, she said, is part of a recent string of crackdowns on the press – from Marion, Kan., where police raided the local newspaper and its editor-publisher’s home to seize evidence after an allegation of illegally accessed state records; to Waverly, Ohio, where an editor was charged with illegal wiretapping for publishing audio testimony from a murder trial; to Calumet City, Ill., where city officials sanctioned a reporter for his persistent questioning.

“It’s open season on journalists,” said Kathy Kiely, a University of Missouri journalism professor who specializes in media-law issues.

Even though judges or other local officials eventually dismissed or dropped these other recent cases, the effect can be damaging. An arrest can harm a journalist’s reputation, run up legal bills that drain a vulnerable news outlet’s coffers – and deter other reporters from pursuing important stories.

Kiely sees two forces driving the trend: The financial decline of the news media has emboldened elected officials, who no longer fear challenging once-powerful local institutions. And the partisanship of social media has persuaded some officials that the only “legitimate” news coverage is praiseworthy and unaggressive.

It’s no coincidence that several of these episodes have occurred in small towns like Marion and Atmore – far from the hubs of national media that endured attacks on a free press from Donald Trump and his allies. Local officials “may not be aware” of these kinds of press protections because they have dealt with these crises so infrequently, said Bruce D. Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.


Residents of Atmore were especially surprised that Billy went after Digmon, a respected local figure who grew up in this town of 8,542 people and has spent most of her life in it.

“I’ve known her for years,” said Mayor Jim Staff, who said Digmon supported his candidacy. “As far as I’m concerned, she’s a straight-up person.”

Newspaper boxes in Atmore, Ala., feature further coverage stemming from the arrests of Atmore News publisher Sherry Digmon and reporter Don Fletcher. Atmore is in Escambia County, which has four newspapers. Paul Farhi/The Washington Post

The backstory of the Atmore arrests involves complicated interpersonal entanglements and political feuds in a rural county (pop. 36,669) where the personal and professional lives of community leaders sometimes crisscross.

Diminutive and soft-spoken, Digmon was a reporter for the town’s longer-established newspaper, the Atmore Advance, before she and her business partner, Myrna Monroe, started a monthly magazine in 2002. They launched the Atmore News in 2005, now one of four papers in Escambia County. Digmon serves as publisher and editor, while Monroe handles the bookkeeping and is the receptionist in its storefront office. Fletcher is the paper’s only editorial employee.

When the News is printed each week, he and Digmon get in their cars and drive throughout the county delivering some 1,500 copies. On her business card, Digmon cites a hopeful Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

But Digmon also has a second job – as one of seven elected members of the Escambia County Board of Education.


Many newsrooms have prohibitions on staff members becoming involved in politics or local government because of the potential for conflict between the two roles. Digmon’s dual responsibilities – to the school board and to the newspaper that sometimes covers the school board – created the tension at the heart of her battle with Billy.

The flash point for Digmon and Billy were the board’s contentious deliberations over whether to renew the contract of county schools superintendent Michele McClung.

On Oct. 12, following several weeks of public discussion, debate and procedural maneuvers, the board decided not to renew McClung. The vote was 4-to-3, with Digmon joining the majority. She explained at the meeting that she felt McClung had lost the support of teachers and other staff.

“As far as the employees in our schools, it’s apparent that leadership needs to change,” she said, according to the Atmore Advance.

Among the most passionate advocates for renewing McClung’s contract: Billy, the district attorney.

Billy, 66, is another local native who grew up in Brewton, the county seat. He came to legal practice late, after running a flower shop for about a decade before deciding to go to law school in his late 30s. First elected D.A. in 2004 as a Democrat, he switched to the Republican Party in 2019 before winning election to his fourth term.


In a Sept. 21 letter to school board members obtained by The Post, Billy praised McClung’s performance: “The fact is that Ms. McClung has the best interest of the children at heart and she has accomplished more in her short term than others have in years.”

He followed up by speaking up for McClung at the board meeting before the vote. After attesting to her character and achievements (“I’ve gotten to know her well, and she wants to do the right thing”), he all but said that voting against her would be illegal.

Billy cited a statute that obligates board members to vote “solely on the needs and interests of students of the system” – and then asked the board a pointed question.

“You people that are voting ‘no,’ is that what your interest is?” he said, according to a transcript of the meeting, before answering himself. “I don’t think so. … You’re undoing what you took an oath of office to do.”

It’s not clear why Billy was such an enthusiastic supporter of McClung; locals said he didn’t typically appear before the school board on other issues. Neither Billy nor McClung responded to multiple requests for comment.

Earnest Ray White, an attorney for Digmon and Fletcher, maintains that Billy’s move to prosecute them was motivated purely by “retaliation” – that he wouldn’t have acted if Digmon had simply voted to keep McClung on the job.


He “was upset that Sherry voted no on the contract renewal after Mr. Billy had gone in front of the [board of education] asking for them to renew it,” White said in an interview.

Ironically, it was Billy’s impassioned speech on behalf of the beleaguered schools superintendent that helped Fletcher break the grand jury story two weeks later.

The reporter and publisher had agonized for days over what to do with the document that appeared in the newsroom mailbox, unclear where it had come from or if it was enough to rely on for a story.

But Billy, in his speech before the board, took pains to defend McClung against certain “rumors and attacks” he said were going around town, adding that “this lady is not going to be brought before a grand jury because there is nothing to bring her there. There will be other things to come before the grand jury that I’m not at liberty to reveal.”

That, ultimately, would serve as the Atmore News’ confirmation that there was, indeed, a grand jury at work. Fletcher’s subsequent article reported that Billy was looking into whether bonus payments to seven school employees were made using federal covid-relief funds, potentially a criminal misallocation of the money. (The article noted that Billy did not suspect McClung of any impropriety.)

Weeks later, Billy charged one of the subpoenaed school officials, Veronica “Ashley” Fore, with revealing grand-jury evidence to the media, alleging that she was the source of Fletcher’s article. He has not revealed the basis for making that claim. Fore’s attorney, C. Daniel White, didn’t respond to requests for comment.


But Billy wasn’t through with Digmon. Five days after her arrest, the grand jury issued a second warrant, this one charging her with two more felonies, this time for corruption and “moral turpitude” in her conduct as a school board member. The prosecutor alleged that Digmon used her position on the school board to pressure staff to buy ads in her publications. She was arrested, again.

White, her attorney, said the charge is baseless; the school system has routinely bought newspaper ads to promote community events and congratulate graduates for decades, including in years when Digmon wasn’t a board member, he said.

There was one more shoe to drop.

On Nov. 3, the grand jury issued a report, signed by Billy, that recommended Digmon be impeached and removed from the school board. The report’s language was both blunt and insinuating. It accused Digmon of neglecting her official duties by skipping some school-related events while selectively attending others (“She always attends school conferences, accompanied by her female partner, spending several thousand dollars”). It further alleged that Digmon turned against McClung after the superintendent began questioning the ad buys.

Though the jury report has no binding legal effect, White noted that removing Digmon from the board could upend its narrow political balance – and possibly reverse the 4-3 vote against McClung.

While Digmon and Fletcher agreed to meet a Washington Post reporter for an off-the-record conversation, they have declined public comment on their cases. Their reticence is compelled by their bail terms, set by a judge, which prohibit them from publishing stories about the grand jury or school board until the information is on the public record.


Brown, of the Reporters Committee, questioned the gag order, saying it is “functionally” an act of prior restraint, preventing the journalists from reporting what they may turn up through their own investigative efforts.

That hasn’t stopped them from reporting the very public details about themselves and their own legal peril, even while awaiting their own arraignment.

In an unbylined story under a banner headline (“Impeachment!”), the paper on Nov. 8 called Billy’s three felony charges against Digmon “a legal assault” that combined with the grand jury report served as “a 1-2-3 punch” against her.

The story was accompanied by a photo, taken by Fletcher, of Digmon leaving the county jail with White following her second arrest.

The notion that Escambia County is a small place was brought home in the aftermath of the journalists’ arrests. The county’s two circuit judges and a district judge all recused themselves, citing “prior professional relationships” and “social friendships” with the defendants and the district attorney. All three previously worked for Billy in the district attorney’s office, while one is also White’s nephew, who worked in his uncle’s firm for 10 years. Fore’s attorney is White’s brother.

In the meantime, Sherry Digmon has said she has no plans to quit either of her two jobs.

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