Mozilla CEO resignation raises free-speech issues

Apr 4 2014, 7:32pm CDT | by

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — The resignation of Mozilla's CEO amid outrage that he supported an anti-gay marriage campaign is prompting concerns about how Silicon Valley's strongly liberal culture might quash the very openness that is at the region's foundation.

Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich stepped down Thursday as CEO, just days after his appointment. He left the nonprofit maker of the Firefox browser after furious attacks, largely on Twitter, over his $1,000 contribution to support of a now-overturned 2008 gay-marriage ban in California.

"There was no interest in creating an Internet lynch mob," OkCupid co-founder Sam Yagun, whose dating service site was among those engaged in online protest, said Friday. "I am opposed to that with every bone in my body."

But Eich's abrupt departure has stirred the debate over the fairness of forcing out a highly qualified technology executive over his personal views and a single campaign contribution six years ago. And it raises questions about how far corporate leaders are allowed to go in expressing their political views.

Some are also questioning whether the episode undercuts the well-groomed image of Silicon Valley as a marketplace of ideas and diversity of thought, and whether, in this case, the tech world surrendered to political correctness enforced through a public shaming on social media.

OkCupid never demanded Eich resign, and after discussing the issue with Mozilla, Yagun ended the call for a Firefox boycott Wednesday afternoon.

In retrospect, however, Yagun said he wished he had framed the Firefox boycott in a slightly different light.

"I would have loved to have engaged in a debate over what happens when freedoms collide," Yagun said. "We have freedom of speech, which I would defend to the end. And we have what I believe is a fundamental liberty of people to marry and love whoever they want. We took a stand that matters to us personally and as a business — and I think the world will be a better place because of it."

Eich's departure didn't end the controversy, it just changed it.

The National Organization for Marriage, which backed California's same-sex marriage ban, called on consumers to boycott the Firefox browser.

Organization President Brian Brown said Eich had been the "target of a vicious character attack by gay activists who have forced him out of the company he has helped lead for years."

While a handful of workers at top tech firms including Apple, Yahoo and Google supported the gay-marriage ban, the vast majority gave money to oppose it.

Mozilla Chairwoman Mitchell Baker touched on the delicate balancing act in her Thursday blog post announcing Eich's resignation.

"Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech," Baker said. "Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard."

Eich' s technical reputation is strong. He created JavaScript and helped write the code to run Netscape's Navigator web browser before co-founding Mozilla.

Mozilla, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., declined to make any further comment Friday. Eich did not respond to requests for comment.

Harmeet Dhillon, vice chairman of the California Republican Party, said Silicon Valley can be intolerant, and noted 52 percent of California voters supported the anti-gay marriage measure.

"Many people have told me they're afraid to identify themselves as conservatives," she said. "We face issues of political correctness all the time."

Eich's resignation should serve as a chilling reminder to workers at all levels that their off-duty behavior or personal opinions could still cost them their jobs if their employers are worried about a backlash hurting their business, said Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute.

New York and a few other states prohibit employers from firing workers for political activity, but even those protections are limited.

Some firings of lower-level employees have raised even more troubling questions about worker rights than Eich's resignation, Maltby said. Some women have gotten fired for Facebook pictures showing them wearing a bikini on the beach, and a teacher lost her job for another Facebook photo that showed her holding a beer.

Most employers are vague about their restrictions on what workers are allowed to share online.

"There is no clear line," Maltby said. "The line is whatever offends your boss or the CEO."

Chick-fil-A Inc. President Dan Cathy's opposition to gay marriage has created controversy for the Atlanta-based company best known for its fried chicken sandwiches and closing on Sundays. But he has maintained his position.

While many gay-rights activists and commentators welcomed Eich's departure, there were dissenters.

Andrew Sullivan, a prominent gay blogger, railed against the pressure that led to the resignation.

"You want to squander the real gains we have made by argument and engagement by becoming just as intolerant of others' views as the Christians?," he asked. "You've just found a great way to do this. It's a bad, self-inflicted blow. And all of us will come to regret it."

Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights group, took issue with Sullivan.

"I don't believe this is a question of suppressing free speech," he said. "It's a question of the market regulating itself."

Had Eich stayed in his job, "a tsunami of negativity was going to eventually overwhelm him and the company," Sainz said. "It's entirely a measure of our success as a movement that we are now part of that long list of issues that CEOs have to consider."

Robert P. George, the Princeton University professor and conservative intellectual, said Eich's case was another example of how religious conservatives who only support heterosexual marriage are being victimized for their views. George has dubbed the incident "Brendan Eich's defenstration."

"Now that the bullies have Eich's head as a trophy on their wall, they will put the heat on every other corporation and major employer," George wrote, in a post on First Things, a conservative journal on religion and public policy. "They will pressure them to refuse employment to those who decline to conform their views to the new orthodoxy."

Russell Moore, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the Mozilla case signaled "very hostile times" for anyone who believes marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Eich was "hounded out of office," he said.

Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, who was the first openly gay bishop elected in the Anglican Communion, said in a phone interview that a corporate board has a right to take stock of how executives' views shape a companies' reputation.

But Robinson noted that Eich said his personal beliefs would not affect his performance as CEO.

Still, Robinson said he disagreed with the idea that Eich served as an example of bullying by liberals, as some conservatives claim.

"It seems to me when a society makes a determination that something is wrong, for example racial hatred, then somehow it's not intolerant to insist upon that understanding," Robinson said.

Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network, which works to build bridges with evangelical opponents of same-sex relationships, described himself as "a passionate supporter of marriage equality." But Lee said he didn't think Eich should have left or been pressured to leave because he donated to Proposition 8.

"As much as I disagree with the donation, this is America, and I believe he has a right to support the political causes he believes in," Lee said.

___

Associated Press writers David Crary and Rachel Zoll in New York and Michael Liedtke in San Francisco contributed to this story.

 
 

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