The arrest of Sherry Digmon, a member of the Escambia County School Board and co-owner of The Atmore News, a local newspaper, has raised questions regarding the timing and motives behind the charges. The controversy stems from a 4-3 vote by the school board not to renew Superintendent Michele McClung’s contract, a decision that prompted heated discussions during an October 12th board meeting. Digmon and Don Fletcher, a reporter at The Atmore News, were subsequently charged with felonies for allegedly revealing grand jury evidence in an October 25th newspaper story related to McClung’s contract non-renewal. Ashley Fore, a school system bookkeeper, was also charged in connection with the release of grand jury evidence.
Sally Smith, the executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, expressed concern over the timing of Digmon’s indictment, particularly as it appeared to be based partly on years-old allegations. Smith emphasized the importance of the school board making decisions without undue influence or fear of retaliation, and noted that while people may have different opinions about the board’s decisions, they must be made with integrity.
Digmon’s attorney, Ernest White, believes the charges are politically motivated, asserting that they aim to create fear. White stated that Digmon and Fletcher did not release grand jury evidence; they merely reported on it, suggesting that someone else leaked the information.
The case has also attracted attention from media ethics advocates and experts, who draw comparisons to a previous incident involving The Marion Record in Kansas. In that case, journalists were accused of obtaining and publishing private records, leading to a controversial police raid and the subsequent withdrawal of arrest warrants. Experts, like Jared Schroeder, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, voiced concerns that such actions create fear and undermine press freedom.
Smith emphasized that the Alabama Association of School Boards refrains from commenting on the substantive charges, as all the facts are not yet known. District Attorney Steve Billy, who has been in office since 2004, did not respond to calls for comment. Advocates for press freedom argue that the case highlights concerns over free expression and the need to protect the rights of local journalism organizations.
This case has raised broader questions about the silencing of the media, with some experts suggesting that it may be an attempt to discourage journalists from pursuing the truth or investigating wrongdoings. In a time when journalists have faced increasing criticism and hostility, the case underscores the importance of preserving the freedom of the press and its role in serving the public interest.