It’s not easy to buck the trend - to go against what others prefer.
But the consequences of following the well-trodden path of silence and conformity may even be a more dangerous inclination.
Before last week’s issue was published a request was made to The Tribune regarding the article about the upcoming jury trial. Put simply: Don’t publish facts from a public record file. Go ahead and list the defendant, the names of the attorneys and the charges – but nothing else. Even though it’s all public record, those facts shouldn’t go in the newspaper. It will prejudice the jury pool.
On the face of it, that request appears to be legitimate. Why allow the public to see facts of the case that may cause individuals called to serve on the jury to be swayed one way or another? The jury should be able to determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant without the newspaper butting in and tampering with the clear, objective mindsets of the jurists.
But a closer look at that request reveals a dangerous form of thinking. One that stabs at the very heart of this nation’s underpinnings.
Public records are just that – public. Any document filed at the local courthouse is available for perusal by any individual. Those summoned to serve can read through the District Court filings on docket if they choose.
Some may suggest those documents shouldn’t be public record. But is that the form of government we really want? Allowing the public to review and critique charges made against individuals averts governmental abuse. Being able to find out why “Uncle Bill” was hauled off and locked up at the local jailhouse prevents officials from exploiting their power over the masses. Be clear of this: The Bill of Rights doesn’t exist in places like China or Saudi Arabia. And don’t be fooled to think those governments don’t abuse their power.
As annoying as the press may seem and those reporters who represent the press, whether it be at the national, state, or local level, they serve as an invaluable tool. This nation’s First Amendment right which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press is a saving grace to you and me.
Are mistakes made? You bet. Are we inundated with too much information? Probably. But take note, the moment the people of this nation forego their right to gather, to talk freely and to publish public information will delineate a step in the wrong direction. Our hope and our future rely on maintaining and appreciating the freedoms this nation guarantees.
But a more troubling principle lies underneath the request to sequester facts from the public. It says to you and me that only a select few can handle the facts. The masses are incapable of truly being objective. It’s okay for the “right people” to see the information. You and I do not have the mental wherewithal to know the facts and still maintain objectivity. “Some” may have that capability, but certainly not the public in general.
That mode of thought is the most repugnant of all. When any elected official embarks along that notion, it’s time to rethink the philosophy they hold.
It represents a form of elitism. It says: I know what’s best for you. You can’t handle the truth, but I can. My intelligence surpasses your’s. That’s why I’m where I’m at and you’re where you’re at.
Here’s a reminder to all who hold positions of power: That housewife handling three young children at home, cooking in the kitchen and maintaining the daily chores that keeps the household running has the intelligence to handle public facts. She has the intelligence to understand the words allegedly, or according to court documents. She gets it that the defendant isn’t guilty, until proven so in court.
Regardless of formal education or the position she holds in her community she has the capability to remain objective – before and after reading her local newspaper.
And if she doesn’t have that capability when she steps inside the courtroom, then it’s the duty of the prosecuting and defending attorneys to discover her flaw and remove her from the jury during jury selection.
Each entity must keep in mind the role played. Law enforcement protects and serves. Attorneys prosecute and defend. Reporters inform. And most importantly the public keeps abreast on issues of the day - using that information at home, at work and when called to serve in the courtroom.
Being fair and objective isn’t a learned skill that only the privileged hold. It comes with sincerity of heart, knowing the facts and being willing to step out on a limb and stand up for a belief held.
It’s something ordinary people do every day.
Published July 28, 2010