Sometimes speech deserves to be defended even when we find it personally distasteful. Such is the case with the “Sajin Young” Facebook page, which criticized Lutheran Health Network (LHN) and its parent company, Community Health Systems (CHS). Often sophomoric, disrespectful, bawdy and full of gossip, the page may not have elicited many defenders for its content. However, it’s unquestionable that we should defend the author’s (or authors’) right to speak.
For those who had not seen the page, “Sajin Young” criticized LHN and CHS management in the wake of several missteps that led to declines in the quality of care, culminating in low grades from the Leapfrog Group, a nonprofit that measures hospital performance nationwide. Recently, the “Sajin Young” page was named–as was NICHE–in a lawsuit brought forth by Community Health Services’ (CHS). Shortly thereafter, the page was removed from Facebook.
The CHS filing appears to be a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). The website, Digital Media Law, defines a SLAPP as “a lawsuit filed in retaliation for speaking out on a public issue or controversy. . . Often…brought by corporations against individuals or community organizations that oppose their actions.” This incorporates, Digital Media Law goes on to explain, “cyberSLAPPs”–which are “lawsuits targeting individuals who post anonymously on the Internet, usually because their posted messages criticize the actions of public figures or corporations.” Furthermore, they are “aimed at chilling free speech by intimidating critics with the prospect of defending an expensive lawsuit. But it also often aims at uncovering the identity of the anonymous critic.” Often, such critics would remain silent under threat of being fired.
Accordingly, the free speech that SLAPPs seeks to silence is specifically protected by law as free speech in 27 states including Indiana (home to LHN) and Tennessee (home to CHS), and anti-SLAPP laws protect speaking out on a public issue or controversy like the turmoil in healthcare in our community. This raises an important question: What place does the Sajin Young Facebook page have in public discourse?
It’s undeniable that the unfiltered nature of the Internet requires that we exercise critical judgment–especially when information is shared anonymously. It is no substitute for traditional journalism, which is, almost without exception, carefully vetted. But the question remains: are we better off hearing local issues raised by the like of the Sajin Young Facebook page, or should we allow public participation to be silenced by “strategic litigation” from corporations? There may be no simple answer, but we must not forget that freedom of speech is necessary for us to enjoy our other rights as citizens.