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Free speech of UMaine student allegedly threatened by an unwarranted lawsuit

Samson Cournane, a third-year student majoring in computer science at the University of Maine, has been accused of defamation. Currently, he is facing legal backlash in response to a petition and letter to the editor published in the Maine Campus on Oct. 28, 2022.  

Cournane was seeking signatures to raise public attention to the need for patient welfare accountability at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center (EMMC). His mother, board-certified critical care pediatrician Dr. Anne Yered, voiced first-hand safety concerns to hospital administration while employed at EMMC in 2021. Shortly thereafter, she was allegedly terminated without legitimate cause. 

Yered, alongside other physicians, was witness to multiple safety violations at the medical institution. It was brought to her attention that the Medical Director of the Pediatric ICU at EMMC only completed one-third of a necessary critical care fellowship. Healthcare workers are not typically authorized to assume a predominant role without receiving a full education in preparation for the position. 

Upon later investigation, Cournane took notice of an alarming staff-to-patient ratio, considering EMMC being ranked as the second-largest hospital in Maine. Though a shortage of nurses is a commonly considered problem, physicians cannot provide complete treatment to those admitted in critical condition without forsaking the care of other patients in turn.

Cournane initially tried to set up a table for his petition at UMaine. He was encouraged by the Assistant Director for Campus Activities Benjamin Evans to have a conversation with hospital public relations beforehand. Evans also suggested that these efforts revolve more around Leapfrog, a nonprofit organization that collects data on patient safety for transparency. 

The Senior Vice President and Chief Quality Officer of EMMC, Dr. Navneet Marwaha, originally arranged an opportunity for Cournane to communicate grievances before creating his petition. However, the hospital administration did not follow through with their arrangement by reasoning that his concerns could not be taken into account due to the litigation involving Yered. After receiving potential misinformation about UMaine’s tabling policy, Cournane eventually set up a petition online. 

“The date and time were set and agreed upon, but Northern Light abruptly canceled the meeting. I went back to the university to see if I could get a table and was told it would cost me $250 each time I wanted to use it,” said Cournane. 

Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP), or “getting sued for speaking out,” potentially threatens freedom of speech. According to Article 1 Section 4 of the Maine Constitution, “Every citizen may freely speak, write and publish sentiments on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of this liberty; no laws shall be passed regulating or restraining the freedom of the press.” 

Abuses of free speech are categorized under obscenity, death threats, incitement to violence or defamation. However, First Amendment rights only apply to governmental censorship, meaning that an individual or conglomerate can claim abuse with even a baseline scope of probable cause. 

Defamation is a false statement publicized with the intention of damaging the reputation of a third party. The tort of defamation considers two components. One is slander, otherwise known as spoken character assassination, and the second is libel, written character assassination. Cournane’s petition and letter would fall under the latter if proven in a court of law. One aspect to bear in mind is that the truth is a widely accepted defense to such allegations. 

To sue for prima facie, or “at first sight” defamation, the plaintiff must prove that a statement made was false but purported as fact, published or communicated to a third person, derived from negligence or malice, and finally, that the statement causes concrete damage or harm to the person or entity mentioned. 

Cournane is represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). According to the case overview, EMMC is also suing under the false conjecture that Yered instigated her son’s decision to initiate public outreach. FIRE wrote, “Although meritless, the threat of defending against a costly defamation suit had the desired chilling effect: Samson ceased his advocacy.”

Cournane will be giving a presentation on his experience at the Maine Youth Leadership Conference in Augusta. It will be live-streamed, and registration is free.

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