Is whatever is embarrassing to the Wetterlings our business?

Jerry and Patty Wetterling. Photo: Caroline Yang for MPR News | File.

The dispute between the parents of Jacob Wetterling and the Stearns County Attorney and sheriff’s office in the county could take months to resolve, the St. Cloud Times reports.

It stems from yesterday’s planned release of documents from the investigation into the disappearance and death of Jacob, which was halted Friday after the Wetterlings filed suit.

There’s no more sympathetic figures in all of Minnesota than the Wetterlings, which might explain why the news organizations that usually jump quickly to defend the right to open records under state law have thus far been silent. Who wants to be seen as piling on the Wetterlings, who only learned a few months ago that their missing son was dead?

There may be something in the documents that embarrasses the couple and do we really need to know it? At the same time, however, the potential tightening of access to information about future investigations allows them to occur in the dark, contrary to the spirit of state laws designed to keep accountability through open access.

The Wetterlings are victims here. And now they have to endure the whispers stemming from their suit. What’s in there they don’t want people to see?

The Wetterlings contend that there is personal information about their marriage, their children and the inner workings of their family that should be kept private. Those details were gathered when investigators had nearly unfettered access to the Wetterlings and their home in the aftermath of Jacob’s abduction in October 1989.

The Wetterlings were allowed to review the redacted investigative file before it was released to the public because they are victims under state law. They have two weeks to submit to the county the disputed documents, Kendall said.

The county then will review those and determine with Kelley what documents to submit to the judge. Douglas County District Court Judge Ann Carrott will then review the documents and decide if any must be withheld from the public.

There’s a precedent here. It’s the case of Todd Hoffner, the Mankato football coach who was charged with possessing child porn on his cellphone. It turned out to be pictures of his young children acting silly after a bath. The charges were dismissed.

The Mankato Free Press and Fox 9 News pressed for access to the files of the investigation, but Blue Earth County Judge Krista Jass shut it down.

“This is such an occasion where the press must exercise restraint and ‘direct some effort to protect the rights of an accused’ to free speech and privacy,” Jass wrote at the time.

But the effort to keep the files sealed came with its own whispers. If Hoffner really was innocent, why didn’t he want everyone to see the records, the editor of the newspaper wondered aloud.

And that’s really the question. Can the media exercise restraint when keeping in mind that whatever is embarrassing to the Wetterlings, it had nothing to do with why their son is dead. Given that, would the news media exercise the restraint to avoid harm to the real victims?

Don’t we already know the answer to that question?

There’s obviously good reason to protect the right to inspect the work of investigators. The recent In the Dark podcast by MPR News showed that it’s possible to do that without the documents that were to be released on Monday.

Danny Heinrich has already murdered the Wetterling’s son. It feels wrong to allow him to come for their reputations now, too.