Hospital threatens mother after son pens criticism in school newspaper: lawyers
After a 15-year-old criticized his local hospital, a free speech watchdog says the hospital threatened to sue the teen’s mother. Here’s why they say it amounts to censorship:
A 15-year-old college junior’s criticism of his local hospital is at the center of a free speech scuffle in Maine.
After Samson Cournane published his concerns about patient safety at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, a free speech advocacy group said the medical conglomerate Northern Light Health threatened legal action against Cournane’s mother, a former EMMC physician who claimed she was wrongfully terminated from her job. But the hospital argues Cournane’s mother ghost wrote the statements as part of a “scheme” to get back at her former employer.
“It’s sad to see the hospital try to stop me from talking about important things,” Cournane told Fox News. “Especially when it’s trying to improve their own health care system and let them know more about the safety of the people that are there and the patients.”
Samson Cournane, 15, stands in front of Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Maine. Cournane published concerns about patient safety and staffing shortages in his student newspaper and an online petition. (Courtesy Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression)
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The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is representing Cournane, who is a junior computer science major at the University of Maine.
Cournane’s mother, Dr. Anne Yered, worked at EMMC until 2021. Cournane said his mother was fired after raising pediatric-patient safety concerns and informing hospital administrators that a colleague had completed just one year of a three-year critical care fellowship. A spokesperson for the hospital denied that Yered was fired for sharing concerns, but declined to comment on the reason for Yered’s termination in an email to Fox News.
Last fall, Cournane launched a Change.org petition, writing about Northern Light’s low patient-safety ratings and “countless online negative patient” reviews. The then-14-year-old addressed the petition to Maine Democratic Rep. Jared Golden and called for an investigation. As of Thursday, the petition had nearly 1,000 signatures.
Then he wrote a letter to the editor of his student newspaper. He cited testimony from an EMMC ER doctor to a task force studying violence against health care workers stating that overcrowding was putting patients at risk. Cournane also wrote that health care workers like Dr. Yered who raise concerns are “being pushed out of the hospital,” though he did not disclose in his article or the petition that Yered is his mother.
The hospital doesn’t believe Cournane is the true author of the petition or letter to the editor.
Yered sent EMMC a draft wrongful termination complaint in January and, in April, FIRE says the hospital “turned around and threatened a countersuit against his mom, strictly for Samson’s speech and advocacy.”
According to a copy of the hospital’s counterclaim shared with Fox News by FIRE, attorneys for Northern Light wrote, “This case is about a physician who was so angry about her termination from employment that she hatched a scheme to get back at her former employer by posting malicious, false, and defamatory statements about a former colleague harming patients on the internet, posing as or ghost writing for her teenage son.”
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“They blamed his mom, saying that she must have ghostwritten everything because he was only 14 at the time,” FIRE senior attorney Jay Diaz said. “But obviously, Samson is a very capable young person. He’s 15 and already a junior in college. He did this work, and it was his passion project.”
Northern Light’s spokesperson Suzanne Spruce wrote in an email that the hospital never threatened to sue Cournane, but did notify Yered that it reserved the right to bring a legal claim against her for “defamatory statements, which have harmed EMMC and the physician about whom these statements were made.”
The hospital thinks the doctor wrote — or directed someone to write — “a series of false and malicious statements about one of our longest tenured, highly skilled, dedicated, and competent physicians,” Spruce wrote in the statement first shared with The Bangor Daily News. Northern Light shared the same statement with Fox News.
“It felt like they were trying to undermine my credibility,” Cournane said. “Just because of my age being 15 doesn’t mean that I don’t know what I’m saying. I fully believe in what I’m doing, and this just makes me want to continue with my advocacy.”
Northern Light argues that former employee Dr. Yered ghost-wrote the statements published by her then-14-year-old son in an online petition and a letter to the editor of his college newspaper. (Courtesy Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression)
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While neither side have filed any suits, FIRE sent a letter last week demanding Northern Light and EMMC “immediately retract and disavow their threat of a lawsuit” over Cournane’s writings.
FIRE frequently takes on First Amendment fights involving government censorship, but Diaz said government doesn’t have a monopoly on censorship. He said the hospital’s alleged legal threat is an example of a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP).
“These lawsuits can be extremely costly,” he said. “When you’re dragged into litigation by a powerful entity or by another individual over your speech, that’s gonna immediately make you think twice.”
Maine is one of around 30 states with anti-SLAPP laws to protect speakers, Diaz said. The nonprofit lawfirm’s letter to Northern Light argues Cournane’s speech is protected by both the Constitution and state law.
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Cournane has no plans to stop speaking out, but he said he worries about the impact legal threats could have on other individuals.
“These kind of things can scare other people from trying to speak out if they’re like in my situation and they want to improve our health care system in general, or not just our health care system, just anything,” he said.
To hear more from Cournane, click here.
Isabelle McDonnell contributed to this report.
Hannah Ray Lambert is an associate producer/writer with Fox News Digital Originals.