Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Brendan Eich’s Freedoms and Mozilla’s Freedoms

Eleven days ago, Brendan Eich took the CEO reins at the for-profit Mozilla Corporation. Due to two donations in favour of the Proposition 8 ballot initiative in California in 2008, there were immediate calls for his resignation. Today — just eleven days later — he has stepped down. But, while there was significant controversy when he was promoted, the reactions to his resignation have been just as fierce. Some see this as an assault on his freedom of speech; others consider the juxtaposition of the outcry for inclusiveness and the protests against Eich hypocritical. In reality, all parties freely expressed themselves; as a result, Eich was found to be unfit for the CEO position at Mozilla.

Let’s go back to 2008. Proposition 8 is placed on the California ballot, its full text reading:

Section I. Title

This measure shall be known and may be cited as the “California Marriage Protection Act.”

Section 2. Article I. Section 7.5 is added to the California Constitution, to read:

Sec. 7.5. Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

If successful, this text would be added to the State Constitution of California, establishing significant precedent against the right for same-sex couples to marry not just in the state, but across the US.

Owing to a substantial campaign and support from donors like Eich, the ballot initiative passed in November 2008. Same-sex marriage was now illegal and unrecognized in the state of California.

Jump cut to April 2012, when a Hacker News user noted one of Brendan Eich’s donations in favour of Prop 8 to the tune of $1,000. A second donation of $500 was also uncovered. Eich responded by defending his contributions, but did not elaborate or provide context:

If we are acquainted, have good-faith assumptions, and circumstances allow it, we can discuss 1:1 in person. Online communication doesn’t seem to work very well for potentially divisive issues. Getting to know each other works better in my experience.

Two years later, on March 24, 2014, Eich was appointed CEO of Mozilla. Again, his past donations (or, more specifically, the $1,000 one; the $500 one fell by the wayside for some reason) caught the eyes of the press and the broader tech community. Three board members resigned in the wake of his appointance, though the degree to which their resignations were caused by him remains unclear. In an interview with CNet, Eich opened up a little more than he did in 2012:

[W]ithout getting into my personal beliefs, which I separate from my Mozilla work … when people learned of the donation, they felt pain. I saw that in friends’ eyes, [friends] who are LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered]. I saw that in 2012. I am sorry for causing that pain.

Mozilla also affirmed their support of same-sex rights, while Eich publicly committed to maintaining Mozilla’s inclusiveness, regardless of his personal views. However, he stopped short of apologizing for the donation itself or attempting to set things right for the LGBTQ community.

Eich also continued to dodge why he made those contributions in 2008. He hasn’t clarified whether his views are for religious reasons, political reasons, or just because he finds two kissing dudes icky. But that’s his First Amendment right, and so is making a substantial financial pledge to reduce the rights of a segment of the population.

Eich’s right to his freedom of expression does not mean he is free from the consequences of that expression, however. Mozilla’s users and employees have First Amendment rights, too, and they have the right to disagree with Eich’s CEO-ship. Their board members also have that right, and have the right to exercise it if they feel the CEO is not meeting the expectations or goals for the company. As far as it has been reported, Eich resigned under his own accord. Kara Swisher, Recode:

In an interview this morning, Mozilla Executive Chairwoman Mitchell Baker said that Eich’s ability to lead the company that makes the Firefox Web browser had been badly damaged by the continued scrutiny over the hot-button issue, which had actually been known since 2012 inside the Mozilla community.

“It’s clear that Brendan cannot lead Mozilla in this setting,” said Baker, who added that she would not and could not speak for Eich. “The ability to lead — particularly for the CEO — is fundamental to the role and that is not possible here.”

She said that Eich — who created the JavaScript programming language, among other prominent computing achievements — had not been forced to resign by her or others on its board, which includes prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor Reid Hoffman.

“I think there has been pressure from all sides, of course, but this is Brendan’s decision,” Baker said. “Given the circumstances, this is not surprising.”

This is ethical capitalism in action: a company that prides itself on inclusiveness and which supports LGBTQ rights finds itself with a new leader that has made a financial commitment to opposing those values in private. Many people make it known that they oppose this decision. The leader realizes that either they go or the company’s reputation suffers. They resign. End of story.

Except, for a certain group of people, this isn’t fair. They claim Eich’s rights are being trampled on. Andrew Sullivan of the Dish promoted a reader’s comment to that effect:

This really frightens me. Eich may well be wrong – very wrong, in fact – but he has a right to his opinion, and the fact that the Internet threw a hissy fit certainly doesn’t justify firing him. There’s no freedom of speech if you can’t be employed while holding your opinion. And he even made it clear that he wasn’t going to change any of Mozilla’s benefit policies or the like! This wasn’t going to affect anybody in any way. This is entirely about his right to hold his opinion.

Sullivan himself opined:

The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.

Sullivan does make a good point: the hounding of Eich is unnecessary and unhelpful, as is the puerile name-calling I’ve seen on Twitter and comment forms. Aside from that, I disagree. As I made plain above, our freedom of expression does not absolve us of our accountability for those words or actions. Eich’s actions demonstrated a gross intolerance of the rights of LGBTQ couples, and we should not support the institutionalizing of the right to be intolerant. If Eich thinks that same-sex marriage is against his beliefs, that’s fine, even if you (as I) disagree with him. But, by making a commitment to impress that belief upon others, he created a situation where his freedom of expression trampled the freedoms and rights of others.

If Eich disagrees with same-sex marriage on religious grounds, that’s also his First Amendment right. But unless there’s a law requiring religious institutions to officially support same-sex marriages, his right to practice a religion is not infringed upon by their legality. And, again, I stress the critical difference between disagreeing with something and campaigning to write that disagreement into law. There is a direct path between Eich’s $1,500 donation and the pain of thousands of same-sex couples in California after Proposition 8 passed.

I also wish to stress that the discrimination of rights between same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples is not an issue with two equally valid sides. Remember: marriage isn’t just about love. There are tax benefits and medical proxy rights, to name just two rights that straight couples have enjoyed for centuries but have been unavailable to same-sex couples. There’s love, and that’s important, but there are tangible rights that are not shared by two otherwise-identical groups of people.

We are very lucky to enjoy a large number of rights. Let’s ensure we all have those rights, and that we exercise them for the best of all.