Accountability needed after charges dropped against AL journalists

Seth Stern

Director of Advocacy

Charges have finally been dropped against Atmore News journalist Don Fletcher and publisher Sherry Digmon, who were unlawfully arrested for reporting on an investigation of a school board's handling of COVID funds. Escambia County Sheriff's Office

Almost six months ago, the arrests of Alabama reporter Don Fletcher and newspaper publisher Sherry Digmon made national headlines. Last week, charges that Fletcher and Digmon broke the law by reporting on a grand jury subpoena were finally dismissed.

That’s good news. But answers and accountability are still needed. The case against Fletcher and Digmon — which rivaled the raid of the Marion County Record for the most egregious U.S. press freedom violation of 2023 — was frivolous from the start.

The grand jury secrecy law they were charged under was plainly inapplicable to journalists, as opposed to grand jurors and others with direct access to grand jury proceedings. Anyone who read the text — let alone an experienced attorney like Escambia County District Attorney Stephen Billy — could have figured that out.

And Billy certainly should have known that the First Amendment does not permit arresting journalists for reporting the news. Nor does it permit what happened next: the imposition of a prior restraint prohibiting Digmon and Fletcher from doing their jobs as a condition of being bailed out of their illegal imprisonment.

Just like in Marion, local journalists have spent the months after the incident shedding light on what led authorities to target the press. And just like the former police chief and mayor in Marion, it sure looks like Billy had a personal grudge that led him to abuse his authority.

When Billy recused himself from the case in February, he cited “both a legal and a personal conflict.” He didn’t specify the nature of the conflict, but Billy was a vocal supporter of a former superintendent of the local school district who Digmon, in her capacity as a member of the school board, voted against retaining.

It’s unclear why Billy was so interested in the superintendent’s employment but let’s assume he legitimately believed she was the best qualified person for the job. It’s fine for him to advocate for her in his capacity as a citizen, but it’s another thing altogether to use his perch as district attorney to micromanage the board’s affairs under the threat of prosecution.

He gave a speech before the vote on the superintendent’s retention implying that letting her go would violate board members’ oaths of office, because he thought retaining her was in the district’s best interests. The threat was hardly veiled when he reportedly commented at the meeting that “I don’t control much, but I do control the grand jury of Escambia County.” If it wasn’t clear what he meant then, it certainly is now.

The dangers are obvious when officials try to mandate that others share their opinions by claiming anyone who disagrees must be a malicious actor. That’s authoritarian stuff. So is how, after the vote, deputy sheriffs reportedly obtained search warrants and seized the cellphones of all four board members who voted against retention.

Billy even used the criminal justice system to seek Digmon’s impeachment for, in his opinion, ignoring “all the positive things” he superintendent had done and “refusing to publish articles which promoted the school system and the superintendent, which were written by a contract writer of the school system.” The impeachment charge has also reportedly been dismissed.

It would be bad enough if Billy had filed these charges in good faith. That level of ignorance of the Constitution is inexcusable for any elected official, especially a prosecutor. But the evidence makes a strong showing that he wasted taxpayer money, and made a mockery of the First Amendment, to settle personal scores.

Fletcher, finally free of the illegal prior restraint that barred him from commenting on the case, isn’t letting Billy’s antics get in his way. “It will take a lot more than this to keep me from trying to dig up stories, especially when I think the people of this county are getting taken for a ride," he said. He added that Billy “needs to be out of that office because he's shown that he will abuse his power," calling the allegations Billy brought to the grand jury a combination of “misinformation,” “half-truth,” and “just lies.”

He’s right. The case shows Billy is both unqualified and unfit to hold his position as a district attorney — or any public office, for that matter. The dismissal of the charges against Digmon and Fletcher shouldn’t be the end of this story. Real accountability is needed.

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