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Mozilla founder becomes 'free speech' martyr

Eich's resignation has led to an outcry from some on the right, who are accusing gay marriage supporters of trying to smother free speech.
A man is seen next to a Firefox logo at a Mozilla stand during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Feb. 28, 2013.
A man is seen next to a Firefox logo at a Mozilla stand during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Feb. 28, 2013.

Five years ago, former Mozilla Corp. CEO Brendan Eich made a political donation. Thursday it cost him his job, leading to cries that his right to free speech had been stifled.

Eich, one of the founders of Mozilla, which created the Firefox web browser, contributed $1000 to the 2008 campaign for Proposition 8 in California, a ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage in the state. After Eich was chosen as CEO 10 days ago, members of the Mozilla's board resigned, several Mozilla employees denounced his selection, and the dating website OK Cupid blocked access from the Firefox browser.

Eich initially tried to stay on, telling CNET that "if Mozilla cannot continue to operate according to its principles of inclusiveness, where you can work on the mission no matter what your background or other beliefs, I think we'll probably fail." Eich expressed sorrow for causing "pain" to gay and lesbian friends but said that "I don't think it's good for my integrity or Mozilla's integrity to be pressured into changing a position." 

Both Eich and Mozilla reaffirmed their commitments to inclusiveness for all Mozilla employees, but it wasn't enough to quell the firestorm. Thursday afternoon in a blog post, Eich said he had resigned

Eich's resignation provoked an outcry from some on the right who are comparing his treatment to a blacklist and accusing gay marriage supporters of trying to smother free speech. The Heritage Foundation's Ryan T. Anderson wrote that "For some who favor the redefinition of marriage, tolerance appears to have been a useful rhetorical device along the way to eliminating dissent." Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, one of the earliest supporters of same-sex marriage rights, wrote that "If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us." Some are even citing Eich as a reason to make political donations anonymous so the wealthy can influence the outcome of elections insulated from public criticism. 

That some conservatives now speak of tolerance in the context of gay and lesbian rights is ironic.

While holding the religious belief that marriage is between a man and a woman is not synonymous with bigotry, demanding the state enforce that view is another matter. Even some former opponents of same-sex marriage, like President Barack Obama, opposed Proposition 8, which did more than merely ban same-sex marriage in California. It also rendered invalid the unions of 18,000 couples who were able to marry in the state before Proposition 8 passed. That's one of the reasons judges on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that the measure "serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California." Gay and lesbian Mozilla employees in particular would certainly be within their rights to be concerned about working for a boss if they felt he didn't respect their human dignity. 

Many conservatives now preaching tolerance have supported using the coercive power of the state to criminalize gays and lesbians, block their unions from state recognition, and prevent them from adopting children. The Heritage Foundation has spent years supporting the criminalization of homosexual intimacy, opposing allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, and facilitating bogus social science alleging that same-sex couples make inferior parents. The current president of the Heritage Foundation, former South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint, said in 2010 that gays and lesbians (and unmarried pregnant women) should be barred from teaching. In 2011, Heritage martyred itself for free speech when it boycotted the Conservative Political Action Conference over the inclusion of a gay conservative group, GOProud. 

Free speech is something of a red herring here. Contrary to some conservatives making the comparison, this is not like blacklisting during the Red Scares, where left wing views were essentially criminalized and such an association was tantamount to an accusation of treason. There is no campaign, backed by the authority of the state, to purge regular people who hold anti-gay rights views from their jobs. This is not even comparable to the reprehensible campaign to block construction of Chik-Fil-A restaurants because of their donations to anti-gay rights causes. 

What happened to Eich may indeed have a "chilling effect" on others expressing similar views, but it's crucial that the chilling effect is not coming from tacit or explicit government influence. Political arguments work in part by persuading people that certain views are wrong or unacceptable. Eich had a First Amendment right to give money to the Proposition 8 campaign. His critics had the same right not to use Mozilla's products, or to criticize them for choosing Eich as CEO. Supporters of Eich now have the right to attack Mozilla over his resignation. This is, in part, how the marketplace of ideas functions. 

Still, it's worth asking what Eich's resignation has accomplished. The Supreme Court essentially legalized same-sex marriage in California last year. The couples whose unions were severed by Prop 8 have been made whole. Eich's resignation does nothing for them, and little for the same-sex couples around the country who are seeking the right to marry or remain in legal limbo because of states that refuse to recognize their unions. Retribution against Eich probably won't do much for the cause of equal rights.

It may even alienate potential supporters justifiably concerned that Eich's resignation could lead to a society in which people can lose their jobs and careers because of their unrelated political views. Firing say, a school bus driver or a waiter for being a Democrat or a Republican would certainly be disturbing. As a practical matter, many employees are already pressured to support their bosses' political views -- a restriction on speech many conservatives might defend as an exercise of the employer's free expression. 

Eich's circumstances however, are quite different from those of a rank-and-file employee.

Mozilla has products it wants to sell. Having Eich as the face of that brand could have harmed Mozilla's ability to attract talent or customers. This is one of the reasons corporations often try to avoid expressing controversial political views -- they don't want to alienate potential clients. If Mozilla had hired a CEO who had made donations to groups that expressed prejudice on the basis of race or religion, the outcome probably would have been similar.

Some of Eich's defenders undoubtedly feel the world would be a better place if everyone could express controversial views without ever having to worry about losing their jobs. But that's not the world we lived in before Eich's resignation, and it won't be the world we live in anytime soon. Despite what many of Eich's supporters are saying now, most of them don't really want to live in that world either.