How Should Liberals Feel About the Mozilla CEO Getting Pushed Out Over Marriage Equality?

By now you may have heard the story of Brendan Eich, who was named the CEO of the Mozilla corporation, which runs the Firefox web browser, then resigned ten days later after it was revealed that he donated $1,000 to the campaign for California's Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage in the state and was later overturned. Eich's resignation came after the company came under pressure from many directions, including the dating site OKCupid, which put a message on its site asking its users not to use Firefox. This is something of a dilemma for liberals: on one hand, we support marriage equality, but on the other, we also support freedom of thought and don't generally think people should be hounded from their jobs because of their beliefs on contentious issues. So where should you come down?

In order to decide, there are a few questions you need to ask, some of which are easier to answer than others:

What kind of an employee was Brendan Eich? This question, which may be the most important one (as we'll see) cuts against Eich. The rules should be different for someone who's at the top of the organization and someone who is somewhere farther down the chain. Not only is the guy who works in the mailroom much more economically vulnerable—losing his job could mean not being able to pay his rent—but the farther down you go, the less likely it is that his personal beliefs are going to have any relevance to his job (there are exceptions, of course). But the CEO of a tech company is economically insulated, and acts as a public spokesman and representation of the organization in every way—its products, its employees, and, if you will, its spirit. It seems reasonable that the company should seek a leader who embodies its values about open-source software, about the way employees are treated, and even about civil rights.

Should a company be able to push you out for your personal beliefs? Legally speaking, they have the right to fire you for something you believe (legal protections against job discrimination only apply to a few specific areas, like race, sex, religion, and age), but that doesn't mean they should. But let's take this example to an extreme. What if the company found out that its CEO was a neo-Nazi, or organized Klan rallies his spare time. If he said, "That has nothing to do with how I do my job," the company would probably say, "Well...maybe. But we still want you out." The point isn't that that being against marriage equality is comparable to those things, only that there are certainly some personal beliefs that could reasonably get you fired. That being the case, the question is where the line is between beliefs that are not that big a deal, and beliefs that are so problematic that they can't be overlooked. So the next question is...

Is marriage equality the kind of issue over which a CEO should get pushed out? And here's where it gets more tricky. The question is, what kind of belief is this one? Is it just political, or is it more fundamental than that? Is it so far outside what we could reasonably expect this person to believe that by its very extremism it makes it impossible to do his job?

The answer to that last question is almost certainly no. Conor Friedersdorf asks, "Does anyone doubt that had a business fired a CEO six years ago for making a political donation against Prop 8, liberals silent during this controversy (or supportive of the resignation) would've argued that contributions have nothing to do with a CEO's ability to do his job?" He's probably right about that (Andrew Sullivan also expressed outrage at Eich being pushed out). That being said, the question of what the CEO in particular is supposed to embody may trump the other considerations.

As Will Oremus argues, in a place (Silicon Valley) where there are lots of gay employees, morale is critical, and competition for talented workers is fierce, having a CEO who doesn't support full rights for gay people could put the company at a competitive disadvantage. So Mozilla could argue that it's not just a question of whether Eich is the kind of person they want to hang out with, but whether his beliefs on this issue could have a detrimental effect on the company's bottom line. And if corporations can have free speech rights (and maybe even religious beliefs), it's certainly possible for a company to have values about things like equality, values that it demands that its leadership share.

In sum, I think there's some merit to both sides of this debate. It's probably not a good thing to have crowd-sourced oppo research campaigns done on every new CEO of a prominent company to see if there is anything in their past or biography that can be used to put pressure on the company. On the other hand, there are some positions where some beliefs matter more than they might in other contexts, and this appears to be one of them.

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