In an unfortunate twist of fate, OceanGate’s ill-fated journey to the Titanic wreck turned from an expedition to disaster as the Titan submersible imploded, claiming the lives of all five passengers on board. However, as the dust settled on this tragic event, a troubling narrative emerged, shedding light on the CEO’s disregard for safety and his alarming attempts to silence dissenting voices.
Amidst the aftermath, it became evident that CEO Stockton Rush had employed a dangerous tactic to muzzle his critics. By resorting to strategic and meritless lawsuits, known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP), Rush unleashed a legal storm to intimidate and burden those who dared challenge him. As First Amendment and defamation lawyer Ari Cohn explained in an enlightening article for The Daily Beast, this practice has become all too familiar among influential individuals seeking to suppress free expression.
Ironically, Rush’s overconfidence and hubris, which permeated his actions, may have played a significant role in his own tragic demise. His documented tendency to downplay the importance of safety became evident in a poorly-aged email exchange with Rob McCallum, the expedition leader, and former OceanGate advisor. Rush dismissed concerns in this correspondence, exclaiming, “We have heard the baseless cries of ‘you are going to kill someone way too often. I take this as a serious personal insult.”
According to Cohn, Rush’s litigious tactics extended beyond mere threats. He went so far as to unleash his lawyers on David Lochridge, the former OceanGate director of marine operations and chief submersible pilot after Lochridge raised safety concerns with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The company retaliated by suing Lochridge, tarnishing his reputation, and even leveling allegations of immigration fraud, as recently reported by the New Yorker.
The alarming truth is that Rush’s reckless and relentless use of the legal system to silence his critics is a stark example of how the wealthy exploit the law to their advantage. Surprisingly, despite numerous proposals for anti-SLAPP laws by Congress since 2009, there remains a lack of federal legislation to prevent this practice.
It is worth noting that SLAPPs can have serious consequences but are generally not life-threatening. However, this tragic incident serves as a sad wake-up call to state legislatures and Congress. Urgent action is needed to prevent powerful interests from stifling speech they find inconvenient, uncomfortable, or embarrassing through legal system abuse.
The time for change is now before more lives are needlessly sacrificed at the altar of suppression.