Mozilla, Brendan Eich, Diversity, and the First Amendment


Brendan Eich, Mozilla Foundation official photograph, from Wikipedia

Brendan Eich, Mozilla Foundation official photograph, from Wikipedia

The separation of Brendan Eich, former CEO of Mozilla, from his position just ten days after he was named to it, is a situation where all involved did what they were legally entitled to do, yet the result causes reasonable people some discomfort.

  1. The CEO made a legal donation, in support of a position with which more than half of California voters agreed at the time.

In 2008, Mr. Eich donated $1,000 to support passage of California Proposition 8, which reserved marriage for a man and a woman. Proposition 8 passed that year, with the support of 52% of California voters. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stated they were against gay marriage.

Mr. Eich had every right to contribute to any ballot initiative he wanted to support, as do we all. Nevertheless, he recently resigned from Mozilla under duress, stating, “Under the present circumstances, I cannot be an effective leader.” The circumstances were that his personal donation in support of California Proposition 8 was causing a public backlash against his employer Mozilla.

  1. The protesters did what comes naturally to protesters across America.

When Mr. Eich was named CEO of Mozilla, OKCupid and other organizations in favor of gay marriage “outed” Mr. E in social media for making the $1,000 donation in support of Proposition 8 six years ago. They argued for a boycott of Mozilla for naming Mr. Eich to the CEO role.

The organizations and individuals who spread the campaign to boycott Mr. Eich had every right to publicize what was already public (though not well known) information. It was a fact that Mr. Eich had made the donation. The protesters against his position could discuss it publicly and call for whatever reaction they thought appropriate. Protest is the American way, and we see it acted out every day by both the left and the right.

  1. The company addressed a very real financial and public relations problem.

When Mozilla realized that Mr. Eich’s donation was a distraction from his ability to lead the company and would likely result in lost revenue from customers that did not want to be associated—however remotely—with Mr. Eich’s donation, its board discussed the situation with Mr. E, and he stepped down. It is a board’s fiduciary obligation to mitigate financial problems, and the Mozilla board had to address the situation and determine an appropriate response. In fact, Mr. Eich, as an officer of the company, had a fiduciary duty not to do it harm, which his continued presence was likely to do.

So there is right on all sides in this matter.

AND YET:

And yet, the result in this case makes me queasy. It raises questions that every corporate diversity council, every employee resource or affinity group that supports diversity in the workplace or in society, every Human Resources department in America, and every advocate of political correctness should ask themselves.

Here are my questions:

  1. If contributions to organizations that work against gay marriage can be cause for termination, what other contributions can also be cause for termination? What about contributions to anti-abortion groups? To pro-abortion groups? To tea party affiliated groups? To the Communist party? To fundamentalist churches? To a neo-Nazi group?
  2. If you make distinctions between any of the groups named in Item 1, what is the basis for making those distinctions?
  3. If it is right to make a CEO step down because of a private contribution made for political and religious reasons, what other employees can a company make step down? Other officers? Anyone in a public or leadership role? Any rank and file employee?
  4. What if Mr. Eich’s donation had been made twenty years ago? Forty years ago? Is there any statute of limitations on holding someone accountable for a past political or charitable contribution?
  5. What if Mr. Eich had not given money in support of Proposition 8, but had simply voiced his opinion publicly? Or posted his opinion on Facebook? Or at a private dinner party? Or simply attended a rally in support of Proposition 8?
  6. Where is the role for tolerance of opposing viewpoints in our society?  On what issues is tolerance intolerable in your opinion?
  7. How far would you go to defend the right of someone whose position on an important issue differs from yours to express that opinion? How do you think competing concerns under the First Amendment should be balanced, and whose responsibility is it to ensure that balance is kept?

In this post, I am not advocating for or against gay marriage. I am also not saying Mozilla was right or wrong to force Mr. Eich to depart. I am simply pointing out the complexity of diversity and First Amendment issues.

Mr. Eich’s departure from Mozilla involves a situation where public opinions on an issue of  civil liberty (gay marriage) have been changing rapidly. It is also a situation where a citizen’s freedoms of speech, of religion, and of association are being attacked several years after he exercised those rights.

Regardless of your opinion on gay marriage, and even though all parties involved acted legally, if you do not squirm over the result in this case, I wonder what conflicts between the civil rights of dissenting members of our still pluralistic society would cause you discomfort. After all, the Bill of Rights was designed to protect those with minority opinions.

And yet.

How do you personally answer the questions listed above? How does your organization answer them?

Advertisements

7 Comments

Filed under Diversity, Human Resources, Law, Leadership, Management, Politics

7 responses to “Mozilla, Brendan Eich, Diversity, and the First Amendment

  1. I think powerful lobbies are at work to destroy the freedom of speech in this country.

  2. Ken

    Good questions. Another one: is it the responsibility of companies/organizations to publish the list of causes they either support or disapprove of? How does a potential job candidate know if they fit? If they might get fired? If they will have any semblance of free speech expectations? And I can tell you this: pushing Eich out was wrong and sets a very BAD precedent.

    • Ken,

      The issue you raise about companies articulating the causes they support and disapprove of is a good one. Different organizations espouse different positions, and an open society permits this.

      I am on the fence about whether Eich should have been pushed out. I’ve been in situations trying to manage public relations disasters. If a leader is the cause of the problem, he or she cannot be an effective representative for the company.

      And yet. It does make me queasy.

      As you say, it is a bad precedent. And a slippery slope, as my questions were designed to point out.

      Thank you for the comment.

      Sara

  3. Reblogged this on Work-Life Strategies & Solutions and commented:
    For those tuning in late to news of Brendan Eich’s resignation of CEO at Mozilla, Sara Ricker provides an excellent synopsis of this event. For those who’ve already heard but have yet to delve into complex issues this event brings up, consider the critical questions Sara presents.

  4. Joe

    Thanks for a well written post that captures the essence and nuance of this issue — both of which seem to have been lost in the shouting from both sides.

    One issue that is not discussed here is the counterprotest from those offended by the apparent lack of tolerance for opposing viewpoints. The number who have uninstalled firefox is apparently in the tens of thousands and may even be in the hundred thousands. It will be interesting to see if Mozilla’s move to smooth ruffled feathers on the left ends up costing them more in the long run (both financially and from a PR perspective) than if they had just weathered the initial storm.

    As your questions suggest the lack of tolerance for an opposing viewpoint is such a slippery slope that in my mind it trumps other concerns. I’m amazed that so many fail to see the irony (hypocrisy?) when those who constantly call for tolerance come across as the most intolerant of all.

    • Joe, thanks for the comment. Well stated.
      The lack of tolerance in this situation is a key issue, which is why I consider this such an important discussion for diversity groups to have. We can all be “right” but if we don’t temper our demands with tolerance, we won’t end up with a society we like, whatever “side” we are on.
      Sara

  5. Pingback: Politics in the Workplace: Should I or Shouldn’t I? | Sara Rickover, Behind the Corporate Veil

Please leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s