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posted: 11/10/2011 4:00 AM

The high cost of an open mind in a free society

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When it comes to following proceedings against people accused of crimes or even misbehavior, democracy and the American justice system require a lot of you.

They require, for instance, that you assume that former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky is innocent of molesting children.

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They require you to assume that parolee John Wilson Jr. did not kill a 14-year-old Indian Head Park girl then taunt her parents with texts from her stolen cellphone.

Some might say they even require you to assume that Herman Cain did not sexually harass women, though since Cain has never been accused of any crime, what's legally expected of you may be a little murky.

But whether the case involves someone accused of a violent crime or a would-be government leader accused of behaving badly, our system demands both scrutiny and reservation. That's not an easy combination, so many are tempted, like one reader who contacted us this week, to believe that news about people accused of crime should be either strongly controlled or withheld altogether until the courts have finished their work. That arrangement would certainly lift some of the burden of withholding judgment from your shoulders, since you would know little or nothing about accusations until they've been officially resolved. But it would be a costly trade-off.

In the first place, it would require you to place unqualified faith in the good intentions of authorities. Following a robbery, a beating, a murder, a sexual assault or whatever crime, your sense of well-being in your community would be entirely dependent on the assurances from authorities that the case is being pursued appropriately. Only after the months or years required to complete even a routine trial would you -- whether as a citizen or as a victim -- have an opportunity to assess how well your court system was working.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution had good reason to distrust such a system. They'd observed centuries of monarchical European justice in which suspects were arrested and tried in secret, often after being tortured or denied any opportunity to confront the people accusing them of a crime. So, the framers made it a point to include in the Bill of Rights the guarantee of a "speedy and public trial" for people accused of crimes.

This is not always pleasant for suspects, who often must endure a long period of public speculation before they get their day in court. But it is far better for them. And it is better for you, as well. It allows you to monitor the court system, and ensures that if you're ever arrested even for something as small as a traffic ticket, others will be monitoring as well to ensure that you're treated fairly.

In the meantime, people, as they say, will talk. That's human nature and no legislation will change it. So, newspapers provide real value when they investigate and report information that can help make that talk more authoritative, an activity that's just as valuable for Herman Cain, who is not accused of a crime, as for Jerry Sandusky, who is.

Cain may not like public allegations about his sexual behavior, but no one will deny that whether a presidential candidate is a serial harasser is a legitimate voter concern. So, examination of public claims about him that studies the claimants as dispassionately and thoroughly as it studies the claims helps ensure that everyone gets as much information as possible to evaluate the accusations.

It just requires one thing of you, or anyone in the public, -- an open mind. That's no small demand as it turns out, but it's one that is fundamental to the nature of freedom.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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