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Originally published April 4, 2014 at 10:11 PM | Page modified April 4, 2014 at 10:22 PM

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Mozilla CEO’s quick exit stirs free-speech debate

Brendan Eich’s abrupt departure from Mozilla has stirred debate over the fairness of forcing out a highly qualified technology executive over his personal views and a single campaign contribution.


The Associated Press

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — The resignation of Mozilla’s chief executive officer amid outrage that he supported an anti-gay-marriage campaign is prompting concerns about how Silicon Valley’s liberal culture might quash the openness that is at the region’s foundation.

Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich stepped down Thursday as CEO, just days after his appointment. He left the nonprofit maker of the Firefox browser after furious attacks, largely on Twitter, over his $1,000 contribution to support of a now-overturned 2008 gay-marriage ban in California.

“There was no interest in creating an Internet lynch mob,” OKCupid co-founder Sam Yagun, whose dating-service site was among those engaged in the online protest, said Friday. “I am opposed to that with every bone in my body.”

Eich’s abrupt departure has stirred debate over the fairness of forcing out a highly qualified technology executive over his personal views and a single campaign contribution six years ago. It also raises questions about how far corporate leaders are allowed to go in expressing their political views.

Some are also questioning whether the episode undercuts the well-groomed image of Silicon Valley as a marketplace of ideas and diversity of thought, and whether, in this case, the tech world surrendered to political correctness enforced through a public shaming on social media.

OKCupid never demanded Eich resign, and after discussing the issue with Mozilla, Yagun ended the call for a Firefox boycott Wednesday afternoon.

In retrospect, however, Yagun said he wished he had framed the Firefox boycott in a slightly different light.

“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.”

Eich’s departure didn’t end the controversy, it just changed it.

The National Organization for Marriage, which backed California’s same-sex-marriage ban, called on consumers to boycott the Firefox browser.

Organization President Brian Brown said Eich had been the “target of a vicious character attack by gay activists who have forced him out of the company he has helped lead for years.”

While some workers at top tech firms including Apple, Yahoo and Google supported the gay-marriage ban, the vast majority gave money to oppose it.

Mozilla Chairwoman Mitchell Baker touched on the delicate balancing act in her Thursday blog post announcing Eich’s resignation.

“Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech,” Baker said. “Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.”

Eich’ s technical reputation is strong. He created JavaScript and helped write the code to run Netscape’s Navigator Web browser before co-founding Mozilla.

Mozilla, based in Mountain View, declined to make any further comment Friday. Eich did not respond to requests for comment.

Eich’s resignation should serve as a chilling reminder to workers at all levels that their off-duty behavior or personal opinions could still cost them their jobs if their employers are worried about a backlash hurting their business, said Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute.

New York and a few other states prohibit employers from firing workers for political activity, but even those protections are limited.

While many gay-rights activists and commentators welcomed Eich’s departure, there were dissenters.

Andrew Sullivan, a prominent gay blogger, railed against the pressure that led to the resignation.

“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?,” he asked. “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.”

Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights group, took issue with Sullivan. “I don’t believe this is a question of suppressing free speech,” he said. “It’s a question of the market regulating itself.”

Had Eich stayed in his job, “a tsunami of negativity was going to eventually overwhelm him and the company,” Sainz said. “It’s entirely a measure of our success as a movement that we are now part of that long list of issues that CEOs have to consider.”

Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network, which works to build bridges with evangelical opponents of same-sex relationships, described himself as “a passionate supporter of marriage equality.” But Lee said he didn’t think Eich should have left or been pressured to leave because he donated to Proposition 8.

“As much as I disagree with the donation, this is America, and I believe he has a right to support the political causes he believes in,” Lee said.

Associated Press writers David Crary and Rachel Zoll in New York and Michael Liedtke in San Francisco contributed to this story.



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