Dick Polman: Mozilla’s CEO and the right to be wrong

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Dick Polman
Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Gay marriage is inevitable—and rightly so, because it’s in sync with a core American value, equality under the law. But another core American value is freedom of expression, and gay marriage supporters need to revere that, as well. I say this because last week’s purging of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich—whose head wound up on a pike because he gave a grand to an anti-gay marriage campaign six years ago—was manifestly unfair.

How ironic it is that people who’ve successfully championed gay marriage by preaching tolerance have so swiftly become intolerant of dissent, to the point of becoming retroactive thought police.

Eich helped launch the Mozilla tech firm in 1998. In 2008, during California’s gay marriage referendum, he wrote a check to the foes. Big deal. Fifty-two percent of the voters in blue-state California said “no” to gay marriage in that referendum. Fact is, Barack Obama was publicly opposed to gay marriage in 2008. Hillary Clinton was publicly opposed to gay marriage in 2008. If today’s gay marriage triumphalists really want to be consistent, perhaps they should purge Hillary as a viable 2016 candidate.

Eich was forced to quit, after just 10 days as the new CEO, because his critics declared that Mozilla should not be led by a documented homophobe. He was dogged by an online campaign petitioning for his ouster, and by a dating site that urged its users to drop Firefox. In recent weeks, Eich also declined to say whether he now believes that his 2008 donation was wrong. That only made matters worse. Purgers expect heretics to renounce past heresies.

Hey, I get that homophobia is the new racism—I’ve written that many times—but the big problem with thought-policing is that there’s no respect for nuance. Here’s some nuance:

Eich’s 2008 personal belief (which at the time echoed the California mainstream) was never a factor in his professional life. The purgers haven’t cited any evidence that Eich ever discriminated against gays and lesbians in the Mozilla workforce. This isn’t a case like Hobby Lobby, where the top officers are trying to impose their religious conservatism on women workers seeking full contraception coverage.

Mozilla reportedly provides the same health benefits to gay partners as it does to straight married partners—even in states where that kind of equality is not mandated. There’s no evidence that Eich ever fought or criticized that policy; in fact, shortly before his purging, he specifically lauded “our inclusive health benefits, our anti-discrimination policies, and the spirit that underlies these.”

Alas, Eich is now forever defined not by what he did as a software specialist helping to build Mozilla for 16 years, but as someone who was incorrect—particularly “in Silicon Valley, a region of the business world where social liberalism is close to a universal ideology.”

Basically, he’s a casualty of what the ACLU has called “viewpoint discrimination,” and I’d suggest that if the purgers want to be truly consistent, in the spirit of viewpoint discrimination, they should scour the public list of 35,000 donors to the 2008 anti-gay marriage campaign and decide which of those people deserve to lose their jobs (not for job performance, but solely for being Incorrect). Lo and behold, some of those 2008 donors work for Adobe, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, and Yahoo. To the barricades with pitchforks!

Blogger-commentator Andrew Sullivan, who is gay, says it well: “What we’re talking about is the obvious and ugly intolerance of parts of the gay movement, who have reacted to years of being subjected to social obloquy by returning the favor. … (Purging Eich) is a repugnantly illiberal sentiment. It is also unbelievably stupid for the gay rights movement. You want to squander the real gains we have made (from) argument and engagement, by becoming just as intolerant of others’ views as the Christianists? You’ve just found a great way to do this. It’s a bad self-inflicted blow.”

Freedom of expression—a core First Amendment principle—includes the right to be wrong. We should trump what’s wrong not by punishing the speakers, but by engaging those speakers and arguing more effectively for what’s right.

Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at dickpolman7@gmail.com. His columns are distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

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