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A Clash of Freedoms

posted: 4.18.14 by Donna Winchell

A headline from Fox News captures the controversy perfectly: “Mozilla CEO resignation over anti-gay marriage contribution raises free-speech issues.” The article opens, “The resignation of Mozilla’s CEO amid outrage that he supported an anti-gay marriage campaign is prompting concerns about how Silicon Valley’s strongly liberal culture might quash the very openness that is at the region’s foundation.” At issue is a $1,000 donation made in 2008 to a campaign that opposed same-sex marriage. That donation six years ago was what forced Brendan Eich, a co-founder of Mozilla and the creator of JavaScript, to step down only days after he had been made CEO at Mozilla. The question being raised even by some strong supporters of same-sex marriage is whether executives in Silicon Valley should fear for their jobs if they express unpopular opinions, particularly given the region’s tolerance of diversity.

The situation is similar to that of Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-Fil-A. Neither executive is accused of discriminating against gays either as employees or as customers. In Chick-Fil-A’s case, however, at issue was millions of dollars in donations given by the company’s charitable branch to organizations opposing same-sex marriage. He has continued to speak out against same-sex marriage as a violation of his personal beliefs. Eich’s was a personal, and smaller, contribution. Before he resigned, Eich stated, “I don’t want to talk about my personal beliefs because I kept them out of Mozilla all these 15 years we’ve been going. I don’t believe they’re relevant.”

Some have defended Eich on the grounds that six years ago, he was where most Americans still were. Even President Obama has illustrated how opinions can evolve. Some have said that all Eich had to do was make a statement that his views have also evolved. But what if that isn’t true? Should he have had to lie to save his job just as in an earlier time gays had to lie about their sexual orientation to keep theirs? Slate editor J. Bryan Lowder has condemned a gay movement “run amok” and has referred to the “rainbow gestapo.” Andrew Sullivan, a prominent gay blogger, added, “You want to squander the real gains we have made by argument and engagement by becoming just as intolerant of others’ views as the Christians?” … You’ve just found a great way to do this. It’s a bad, self-inflicted blow. And all of us will come to regret it.”

On the other hand is OkCupid co-founder Sam Yagun, whose dating service site was involved in protesting Eich’s hiring. Yagun decided to end the protest and call off a proposed boycott and added, “I would have loved to have engaged in a debate over what happens when freedoms collide,” Yagun said. “We have freedom of speech, which I would defend to the end. And we have what I believe is a fundamental liberty of people to marry and love whoever they want. We took a stand that matters to us personally and as a business — and I think the world will be a better place because of it.”

[Photo credit: Brendan Elch by Jonas Srandell as found on Flickr]

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