Is Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich a free speech martyr?

 
Mozilla's Firefox logo is projected on a screen at a technology conference in Barcelona, Spain, on 24 February, 2013. Mozilla's Firefox browser has been the target of boycotts - first from liberals then from conservatives

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On Thursday Mozilla's chief executive and co-founder Brendan Eich resigned after less than a month on the job.

The internet pioneer had come under heavy criticism for a $1,000 (£600) donation he made in 2008 to the Proposition 8 campaign in California, which sought to amend the state's constitution to prohibit gay marriages. (The measure passed but was struck down by a US court in 2012.)

Howls of protest that Mozilla would promote someone with Mr Eich's views quickly turned to howls that Mr Eich was being unjustly punished for those views.

Outrage, it seems, never goes away, it just changes hands.

The editors of the National Review call the development "pure poison":

The nation's full-time gay-rights professionals simply will not rest until a homogeneous and stultifying monoculture is settled upon the land, and if that means deploying a ridiculous lynch mob to pronounce anathema upon a California technology executive for private views acted on in his private life, then so be it.

Start Quote

If we cannot live and work alongside people with whom we deeply disagree, we are finished as a liberal society”

End Quote Andrew Sullivan The Daily Dish

Six years ago, they say, Mr Eich and US President Barack Obama both opposed gay marriage.

"Barack Obama inexplicably remains, as of this writing, president of the United States of America, but Mr Eich has just been forced out as CEO of Mozilla because of his political views."

(One thing they don't mention, however, is that Mr Obama always opposed Proposition 8.)

The Atlantic Monthly's Conor Friedersdorf offers a hypothetical:

Consider an issue like abortion, which divides the country in a particularly intense way, with opponents earnestly regarding it as the murder of an innocent baby and many abortion-rights supporters earnestly believing that a foetus is not a human life, and that outlawing it is a horrific assault on a woman's bodily autonomy.

The political debate over abortion is likely to continue long past all of our deaths. Would American society be better off if stakeholders in various corporations began to investigate leadership's political activities on abortion and to lobby for the termination of anyone who took what they regard to be the immoral, damaging position?

"The rise of marriage equality is a happy, hopeful story," he says. "This is an ugly, illiberal footnote, appended by the winners."

Andrew Sullivan, who is gay himself, says the gay advocacy groups that pushed for Mr Eich's ouster set a terrible precedent:

Start Quote

Eich wasn't just a casual opponent of marriage equality”

End Quote Mark Joseph Stern Slate

When people's lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line. This is McCarthyism applied by civil actors. This is the definition of intolerance.

If a socially conservative private entity fired someone because they discovered he had donated against Prop 8, how would you feel? It's staggering to me that a minority long persecuted for holding unpopular views can now turn around and persecute others for the exact same reason. If we cannot live and work alongside people with whom we deeply disagree, we are finished as a liberal society.

Not so fast, writes Slate's Mark Joseph Stern. Mr Eich's donation to the Proposition 8 campaign was more than just an expression of his political views - it was the endorsement of a hateful campaign.

"Almost every gay person I know remembers the passage of Prop 8 as the most traumatic and degrading anti-gay event in recent American history," he writes. "The tactics used by pro-Prop 8 campaigners were not merely homophobic. They were laser-focused to exploit Californians' deepest and most irrational fears about gay people, indoctrinating an entire state with cruelly anti-gay propaganda."

He says that the campaign worked because people like Mr Eich gave money to fund television ads that insinuated that gay marriages would corrupt the children of California.

He concludes:

Eich wasn't just a casual opponent of marriage equality. He was a major contributor to the most vitriolic anti-gay campaign in American history, one that set the standard of homophobic propaganda that continues to this day. When we talk about Eich's anti-gay stance, we aren't just talking about abstract beliefs. We're talking about concrete actions that harmed thousands of gay families and informed innumerable gay Americans that they were sinful, corrupted predators.

The Awl's Choire Sicha says that Mr Eich wasn't forced out - he quit because he "didn't want to do the actual work" of defending his views:

How can we want to live in a society where people with despicable views won't defend them long enough to make the situation better, and instead, huff off, quit their jobs and apparently delete their Twitter accounts?

One minute Eich was blogging about how he'd show everyone that he could deal with a complicated situation, celebrate diversity and the company, and ensure that everyone could trust in his leadership. Eight days later, his willingness to see that process through had apparently evaporated.

MSNBC reporter Ned Resnikoff sees a different double standard at work in this story.

"I like how at-will employment and arbitrary termination become crises when they happen to a wealthy executive," he tweets.

The ground beneath the opponents of gay marriage has crumbled with surprising quickness, as this controversy clearly shows.

Conservatives have rallied to Mr Eich's defence mostly on free speech principles and not because they agree with his views on the topic (although some certainly do).

But just because the battles to enshrine male-female marriage in state constitutions are largely a thing of the past, the vitriol of the campaigns like Proposition 8 still casts a shadow over today's politics - and it cost Mr Eich his job.

 

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