Mozilla’s Brendan Eich and gay marriage: Intolerance over tolerance?

Shortly after being named head of Mozilla, Brendan Eich was pressured to resign over his earlier support of California's Proposition 8 ballot measure against gay marriage.

The Firefox logo is mounted at a Mozilla stand during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last year.

The resignation of tech wizard Brendan Eich as CEO of the Mozilla Foundation after only 15 days on the job has roiled Silicon Valley, reverberating across a country struggling over the fine line between privacy rights and free speech, especially when it comes to gay rights.

Mr. Eich’s $1,000 donation to the Proposition 8 campaign – the anti-gay marriage referendum that passed in California in 2008 and which was overturned by courts last year – prompted backlash among some of Mozilla’s software developers, whose agitation became an Internet groundswell that led to Eich’s resignation Thursday. Eich has not been accused of discriminating against any employee, and he has not apologized nor suggested that he no longer opposed gay marriage.

"Our mission is bigger than any one of us, and under the present circumstances, I cannot be an effective leader,” he wrote in a statement.

The resignation was greeted with cheers among many in the gay community and beyond, some of whom had threatened to stop using Mozilla’s ubiquitous Firefox browser if Eich didn’t step down.

But others are drawing a different lesson from what happened to Eich, likening the events to a “scorched earth” policy that’s antithetical to a society where tolerance for opposing viewpoints is a mainstay of the Constitution.

“This is troubling because one’s politics is one’s own business,” Charles Elson, director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, told Bloomberg News. “That’s been the rule in American business for a very long time.”

To be sure, those behind the movement to oust Eich believe that a Silicon Valley company in America shouldn’t accept those who believe in “discrimination.” Some say opposition to same-sex marriage is akin to fighting against interracial marriage, and can no longer be socially accepted.

“Can you hear the piteous weeping? The wronged tears? Those poor bigots are under attack,” writes Tim Teeman, on the Daily Beast. “Those who are prejudiced against gay people are having their constitutional right to say so trampled. It’s a terrible injustice: you can’t believe that gay people are lesser without some pesky homosexual objecting and ‘bullying’ you into believing that equality under the law is a venerable aim.”

More broadly, however, the vehemence of the attack has shocked some in the business community, and turned attention to the clash of liberal mores in Silicon Valley with the deeply held belief among many Americans that marriage is the union of man and woman.

It has also forced some long-time gay rights activists to question tactics that punish people over their beliefs rather than engage them in debate.

That’s particularly irksome to those who suggest that those who say they support diversity have failed to respect diversity of thoughts on a complex moral and legal question.

“If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us,” laments blogger Andrew Sullivan (who is gay), in a widely circulated blog post.

The resignation of Eich, notes the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto, ties back to the Supreme Court arguments over the Citizens United case, where the court ruled that political donations are protected speech under the First Amendment.

But Justice Clarence Thomas argued against allowing the disclosure of the names of private donors. Thomas pointed out how gay rights supporters used disclosure laws to create maps showing homes and businesses of those who supported the referendum. Some of those supporters were then targeted for protests, with several having to close businesses.

“The success of such intimidation tactics has apparently spawned a cottage industry that uses forcibly disclosed donor information to pre-empt citizens' exercise of their First Amendment rights,” Justice Thomas wrote.

App developers Hampton and Michael Catlin, a gay couple, distanced themselves from Mozilla after Eich’s hiring, a move that helped bring Eich’s support of Prop. 8 to light.

"This really was a personal statement of boycott, and it seems to be getting carried as if we are organizing a boycott or that we think Mozilla is evil or that we think Brendan Eich is the devil. None of those things are true,” Hampton Catlin tells Beta News, which broke the story. “We just were hurt as developers who were committing our time and energy to their platform, that they would go pick someone with an unresolved anti-same-sex-marriage controversy. If he had apologized years ago, this would be a non-issue.”

To be sure, at the time Eich made his donation, only two states allowed same-sex marriage, and a majority of Americans (including then presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton) opposed the idea; today, 17 states allow it, and a majority of Americans support the idea, according to polls.

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