The Mozilla issue and freedom of speech

There has been considerable news coverage and commentary recently about Brendan Eich, first when he was appointed chief executive of Mozilla and shortly thereafter when he resigned.

Some people have rejoiced over the ouster of a man who has given money in support of conservative political candidates and causes. Others decried what they view as a “sad day for free speech.”

Mr. Eich’s freedom of speech (through political contributions) has not been impeded. The expression is tossed around but its constitutional meaning applies only to the government. “Congress shall make no law,” etc. To think that freedom of speech is a blanket permission to say what we want in every situation is wrong. Sometimes the things we might say are illegal, such as with slander or with yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Sometimes the things we say are not illegal but nevertheless violate certain contractual obligations. For example, we may not divulge corporate secrets. In some situations we may not disparage our employers in public.

At other times still, we might have the legal right to express ourselves but consequences can nevertheless result from the things we say. This, I think, is the center of the Brendan Eich troubles. There turned out to be consequences to what he said about same-sex marriage and Pat Buchanan.

In an interview a few days after the recent uproar commenced, Mr. Eich said, “I prefer not to talk about my beliefs.” Doubtless that’s an expedient attitude to take now, considering that he already talked about his beliefs when he wrote checks to support ending marriage equality in California and to help elect Pat Buchanan to the presidency. Every time we give money to a political candidate or campaign we talk about our beliefs.

Mr. Eich has described himself as “not a political figure,” but that’s what each of us becomes when we vote, urge others to vote a particular way, or support political causes financially or otherwise. Political contributions are public information, and to complain, as some have, about “digging things up” from the past in order to embarrass or criticize Mr. Eich is disingenuous.

Some people have characterized the complaints about Mr. Eich as hypocrisy, as intolerance among those who usually espouse tolerance. That is a clever turn of phrase but it doesn’t apply here. To tolerate is to accept the existence of ideas or opinions that one doesn’t hold. But tolerance of ideas is by no means the same as tolerance of people who want to do harm to me.

To have an opinion is not the same as taking action, and it’s when ideas become actions that my tolerance fades. Brendan Eich took action to strip Californians of a right they already held. I don’t care if a stranger hates me, but when he takes action that hurts me, I take notice.

It is fair to question the extent to which individuals’ political activities away from work should be considered as part of their worthiness as an employee. Whatever that threshold is, however, it is higher for a CEO. A chief executive is a figurehead, and in the world of tech those figureheads are highly visible people who should rightfully be expected to represent their companies’ cultures, missions and corporate values, in addition to making money and managing people.

I haven’t heard anyone cast doubt on Mr. Eich’s ability to run a company. His credentials and background in his industry appear to qualify him for that. But the “mission and culture” component – that’s more troublesome. Would his views on, say, marriage equality cause his value to the company to diminish beyond his ability to contribute to it?

Mozilla’s Board of Directors could have made a forceful defense of Brendan Eich, asserting that what he did on his own time and with his own money had no bearing on his job. But they didn’t.

I suspect that it might have made a difference for some observers if Mr. Eich had expressed regret for those controversial political contributions, or if he had indicated that his views had changed, as many people’s have. But he didn’t.

It isn’t entirely clear whether Mr. Eich’s resignation was completely voluntary or came under pressure from the board that appointed him. It was clear, however, that discontent was only increasing, among both Mozilla employees and the general public.

Was what happened the result of intimidation? One could say that, but one could also characterize the episode as the public making its voice heard, exercising its own right to free speech.

I don’t believe anyone has suggested that Mr. Eich did not have the right to his opinions or to contribute money to a campaign to eliminate same-sex marriage in California. Others, though – individuals and the so-called marketplace – are equally free to disagree, to object, even to boycott a company for making Mr. Eich its figurehead.

Boycotts, of course, can go in many different directions. I don’t know if Barilla’s sales of pasta suffered after Signor Barilla made his controversial remarks about homosexuals, or if his company’s subsequent proclamations about inclusiveness have made a difference. There is some indication that Chick-fil-A’s business actually improved after they were boycotted for contributing money to hate groups.

In addition to avoiding Chick-fil-A and Barilla pasta I’ve conducted personal boycotts. I stopped shopping at Whole Foods after their CEO said that Obamacare was socialist and “like fascism.” I stopped shopping at Urban Outfitters after learning that their CEO gave a chunk of money to Rick Santorum. I didn’t watch this year’s Winter Olympics because I thought NBC missed an opportunity to flex its muscle in opposition to Russian President Putin’s harsh, repressive anti-gay policies.

Did my shopping decisions make a difference in any of these businesses’ bottom lines? Almost certainly not. And a boycott is pointless if you don’t tell anyone what you’re doing and why. I do that in conversation and on social media.

We don’t always have options if we don’t like something about a business. I live in a building that offers only one option for TV, and if their service is bad, then I’m out of luck. If we don’t approve of the government’s policies regarding domestic surveillance or the use of drones, we can write or call our elected officials or try to vote them out of office, but that’s about it.

I tend to buy Volkswagens (three in a row), and if I were to learn that a company that makes a particular widget in Volkswagens is led by a person who supported say, a ballot measure removing rights from people, then I might not like it but I probably wouldn’t get very far in changing it, and, to be honest, it probably wouldn’t much affect my decision the next time I’m shopping for a car.

So when people do see ways they can make themselves heard, I think they’re eager to do so. The Internet makes it easy. This is part of the reason that user-facing companies like Mozilla are so quick to respond to unrest. To switch browsers takes only a few minutes.

There is a Mexican restaurant here in Los Angeles called El Coyote, a large portion of whose clientele has historically been gay. In 2008 the manager gave $100 in support of Proposition 8, which took away from same-sex couples the right to marry. Protests erupted and business suffered. I think it was fair of people to withhold their money and urge others to do the same.

It has been asked lately if people who do not believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry would be right to boycott Apple, Facebook, Nike or Starbucks in opposition to their progressive attitudes. Simply, yes. That is one of the ways we all get to exercise our true freedom of speech.


UPDATE, November 2014: Guido Barilla and his family’s company to their collective senses and, to their credit, atoned. Read about it here.

UPDATE, Summer 2016: I returned to Whole Foods. I never heard their CEO express regret for what he said and I acknowledge that I was weak, but after a year in rural Mississippi I deeply desired civilized cheese.