Mozilla’s selection of Brendan Eich for CEO on March 24 prompted widespread outrage because of a $1,000 donation he made to the Prop 8 campaign in 2008. Though the tech world had long condemned Eich’s donation to the since-overturned anti-gay marriage ballot initiative, his promotion reinvigorated the criticism that eventually pressured him to resign.
Conor Friedersdorf, Andrew Sullivan, and a whole host of other journalists and bloggers typically supportive of gay rights have recently denounced Eich’s “forced resignation.” Other members of the business community protest the anti-Eich movement because the idea that “one’s politics is one’s own business [has] been the rule in American business for a very long time.” Friedersdorf worries that calls for Eich’s resignation will have “a chilling effect on political speech and civic participation.” Sullivan goes even farther and writes, “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.”
Some of these commentators’ concerns are understandable, but their arguments paint an inaccurate picture of the effects of Prop 8, confuse the distinction between private and public views, and mistakenly equate two very different types of political speech and behavior.
Friedersdorf asserts that “no one had any reason to worry that Eich…would do anything that would negatively affect gay Mozilla employees,” while Sullivan contends, “There is not a scintilla of evidence that [Eich] has ever discriminated against a single gay person at Mozilla.” Both writers cite Eich’s vaguely-worded inclusivity commitments as evidence for their claims without recognizing that the entire complaint against Eich is based on his direct contribution to legalized discrimination against gay people in California. By way of his donation in support of Prop 8, he has already “negatively affect[ed]” every “single gay person at Mozilla.” Given Eich’s refusal to denounce the apartheid system of marriage he helped enact into law, it would be illogical to expect him to behave differently in the future.
Relatedly, commentators have bought Eich’s argument that his beliefs are personal and private. While the gay community would be significantly better off were that argument valid, it’s unfortunately completely false. Beliefs become public when they take the form of activism, votes, and donations that lead to laws that have consequences for other people. There’s nothing at all private about a $1,000 donation to a campaign that helped deny gay people equal application of the law for over four years.
Most alarming to Friedersdorf and Sullivan is their perception of the free speech implications of Mozilla’s behavior. Friedersdorf writes that Eich’s resignation sends the message “that if you want to get ahead at Mozilla, you best say nothing about any controversial political issue.” Sullivan similarly opines that “[w]hat we have here is a social pressure to keep your beliefs deeply private for fear of retribution. We are enforcing another sort of closet on others.” In addition to Sullivan’s erroneous (and offensive) suggestion that there’s an equivalence “between the oppression faced by the queer community and [the] intolerance [Prop 8 supporters] feel as ‘out’ bigots,” both writers also use a problematic analogy. Sullivan compares Mozilla’s behavior to “a socially conservative private entity fir[ing] someone because they discovered he had donated against Prop 8” and Friedersdorf similarly writes:
There is very likely hypocrisy at work too. Does anyone doubt that had a business fired a CEO six years ago for making a political donation against Prop 8, liberals silent during this controversy (or supportive of the resignation) would’ve argued that contributions have nothing to do with a CEO’s ability to do his job? They’d have called that firing an illiberal outrage, but today they’re averse to vocally disagreeing with allies.
For free speech purists, Friedersdorf and Sullivan make a good point. If all speech is considered equal and free speech is the most important end for us to consider, the type of reasoning used to oust Eich would be analogous to the reasoning used to fire a CEO who campaigned against Prop 8. However, the Supreme Court has long held that other considerations matter more than free speech in certain circumstances. While Sullivan is right that we should be able to “live and work alongside people with whom we deeply disagree,” there is a major difference between legitimate, intellectually honest disagreements and speech, activism, votes, and/or donations that oppress people. The right to speak freely applies differently to the different sides of the gay marriage debate for the same reason that it’s inaccurate to call Aamer Rahman a reverse racist: the power dynamic matters a great deal. Free speech is more important as a means to protect the powerless from being silenced and oppressed than it is as an end in and of itself. Arguments like Friedersdorf’s and Sullivan’s have been used in the past to justify a neo-Nazi intimidation march through a town inhabited by Holocaust survivors; completely free speech is the wrong cause to defend when it undermines a more important purpose.
Protecting the powerless is probably harder to legislate and enforce than free speech purity. Regardless, our priorities are severely warped when we consider Brendan Eich’s right to a discriminatory political donation ahead of gay individuals’ right to equal benefit of the law.
Update: A version of this article ran on The Left Hook on Wednesday, April 9.