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The Long Way Home

The hand-wringing over the mess in the public hospital in Cook County brought back a memory from my days living in Sin City. We moved to unincorporated Clark County, referred to as Las Vegas, in 1999.

Those heady days of rapid growth in the early 2000s meant many people relocated from other parts of the country to live in the desert under the neon lights. A common question newcomer asked of those of us who lived there a while was, “Where do you go when you need to go to a hospital?”

We’d answer, “California.”

The publicly owned North Shore Hospital’s (NSH) elected board announced a special meeting on Tuesday, December 5. Open to the public, part of the meeting will address some strategic planning issues. But the board will go into a closed session, citing “attorney-client privilege” to “discuss litigation regarding defamatory statements made against the Hospital.”

The brouhaha over the termination of Dr. Bruce Dahlman by his employer, Wapiti Medical Staffing, was covered in articles in newspapers, including this one and the Cook County News Herald, as well as local radio station WTIP, Duluth television stations, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Social media lit up like a Christmas Tree with comments by residents along with past and present employees of NSH.

As a public relations move, pursuing litigation over defamation in this case is boneheaded. Feelings towards NSH are heated in the community, and dragging one or more people or institutions into court in an attempt to shut them up will only raise the temperature on the battered institution. Neither the elected board nor the CEO has demonstrated sound judgment during the last few weeks, so who knows what they plan to do.

Defamation is the act of communicating false statements that harm the reputation of the subject of those statements. Many words that don’t paint a glowing image of the NSH board and administration have been written. Proving which statements are false and proving that the reputation of NSH was harmed won’t be easy and won’t leave the taxpayers of Cook County with a good feeling.

The hospital is a public entity governed by an elected board of five commissioners. Each commissioner and the hospital are public figures under any definition. Likewise, the CEO, the public face of NSH, is a public figure.

Why does that matter?

A public figure must reach a higher standard than average to come out on top in a defamation lawsuit. The plaintiff must show that the person who defamed them knowingly made false statements, showed disregard for the truth, and, most notably, that the person acted with “actual malice.”

An article published March 30, 2023, on the website ProtectDemocracy.org states, “We elect officials to represent our will as best they can, and as part of that, public figures must expect and tolerate — as a job requirement — sharp criticism. The freedom to criticize our elected officials not only helps shape public opinion, it also holds politicians accountable to it.”

From the same article, NSH would be stepping in more do-do. “In practice, the ‘actual malice’ standard protects criticism; it protects the unfettered speech essential to democracy.”

Postscript–After collecting 751 signers to a petition asking the hospital board to replace its CEO, the petition organizers closed the petition before Tuesday’s meeting and no longer intend to present it to the hospital board. In a Facebook post explaining its decision, one of the organizers wrote, “The board’s current embrace of ‘litigation over listening’ factored heavily into the decision to close the petition.”

I have no more words.

Steve Fernlund
Steve Fernlund
Typically these “about me” pages include a list of academic achievements (I have none) and positions held (I have had many, but who really cares about those?) So, in the words of the late Admiral James Stockwell, “Who am I? Why am I here?” I’m well into my seventh decade on this blue planet we call home. I’m a pretty successful husband, father, and grandfather, at least in my humble opinion. My progeny may disagree. We have four children and five grandchildren. I spent most of my professional life in the freight business. At the tender age of 40, early retirement beckoned and we moved to Grand Marais. A year after we got here, we bought and operated the Cook County News Herald, a weekly newspaper in Grand Marais. A sharp learning curve for a dumb freight broker to become a newspaper editor and publisher. By 1999 the News Herald was an acquisition target for a rapidly consolidating media market. We sold our businesses and “retired” again, buying a winter retreat in Nevada. In the fall of 2016, we returned to Grand Marais and bought a house from old friends of ours on the ridge overlooking Lake Superior. They were able to move closer to family and their Mexico winter home. And we came home to what we say is our last house. I’m a strong believer in the value of local newspapers--both online and those you can wrap a fish in. I write a weekly column and a couple of feature stories for the Northshore Journal. I’m most interested in writing about the everyday lives of local people and reporting on issues of importance to them.
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