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Gay marriage, Mozilla's Brendan Eich, and the role of a CEO

Proposition 8 (California, 2010)WorkplaceJobs and WorkplaceFamilyMarriageGay RightsSame-Sex Marriage

Brendan Eich's 10-day reign as CEO of Mozilla, developer of the popular Firefox web browser, ended Thursday. He was done in by the news that he had donated $1,000 in 2008 to support Proposition 8, the anti-gay rights measure on the California ballot that year. 

As often happens in periods of social upheaval, the fact and the manner of Eich's departure have occasioned as much discussion as -- maybe more than -- the underlying issue of gay rights. So let's examine what was and wasn't at stake.

To begin with, Eich's resignation, which obviously came under pressure, wasn't a question of his 1st Amendment or even his free speech rights. Mozilla isn't a government agency, so by definition it can't abrogate Eich's 1st Amendment rights.

What about free speech rights? Eich still has those; he's still free to express his viewpoint opposing gay marriage, which was the specific subject of Proposition 8. He's free to contribute to a new Prop. 8 campaign, if one gets started. He hasn't stated that he's changed his mind about gay marriage; if anything, he has hinted that he's still personally against it. (In a conversation with two software developers reported by CNET, he declined to say whether he would vote for a Proposition 8 again.)

What about Eich's right to be CEO of Mozilla? He doesn't have that right, and never did. And that's where the discussion should be focused.

The "witch hunt" theory of Eich's ouster holds that his personal views shouldn't matter: If he's gone because of his donation to Prop. 8, why not purge every corporate employee anywhere who did the same? This argument is exemplified by Slate's William Saletan, who calls disapproval of support for Proposition 8 a "new standard" and writes, "perhaps we should put down the pitchforks." 

But that's a foolish take on this case. The CEO of a company isn't just any employee; he or she is the face of the company, the standard-bearer and very much the standard-setter. As CEO, Eich had the power to heavily influence corporate policy at Mozilla, and although he publicly stated that he would uphold Mozilla's existing standards of inclusiveness and equal treatment in human relations, plainly these were at odds with his personal views. 

Perhaps more important, his personal views were at odds with community standards. Gay rights, including the right to marriage, have indisputably moved into the mainstream of American society, even more so in the communities from which Mozilla draws its employees, business partners and customers. Don't forget that Proposition 8 itself was overturned by the courts as an example of impermissible discrimination. Opposing gay marriage may not yet be as retrograde today as opposing interracial marriage or racial equality, but the distinction is minuscule. Would someone who donated money to those causes be judged qualified to be a CEO? 

The tension between Eich's personal views and corporate and community standards was going to be felt, whether subtly or overtly, in his dealings with employees, customers and business partners. We know this because it already had: protests roiled the staff, the online dating service OKCupid posted a letter on its website encouraging clients to use browsers other than Mozilla's Firefox, and outside developers expressed dismay with Eich's elevation. 

This is why CEOs and corporations try to avoid taking political stands on anything. Some companies learn this the hard way, as we observed in 2012 in connection with Target Corp.'s unhappy experience with backing a candidate opposing gay rights.

Executives with unsavory or unfortunate beliefs or behavior in their past often can survive if they have a substantial record against which that factor can be weighed. If Eich had spent eight years as Mozilla CEO assertively upholding gay rights in the workplace -- and successfully building Mozilla's business in other ways -- then his lone $1,000 contribution on Proposition 8, even his personal beliefs, might not have counted for as much.

But he hasn't. It's true that he has contributed mightily to Mozilla as a co-founder, developer and chief technology officer, but as a newly-minted CEO, all he could do was pledge to uphold gay rights prospectively. It's also worth noting that his overall qualifications for the CEO post were questioned; three Mozilla board members resigned in the wake of his appointment because they thought he was the wrong man for the job. (And not, evidently, because of the Proposition 8 issue.) 

Under those circumstances, his stance on this increasingly important social issue weighed more heavily. Did he have to go? No. Were there reasons that he should go? Yes. But a "witch hunt" this wasn't.

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email. MORE FROM MICHAEL HILTZIK

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