Brendan Eich case raises free speech issues for people who don’t understand how free speech works

No, Virginia. Intolerance of intolerance isn’t the same as intolerance of human beings.

When it became public that recently appointed Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich had donated to the controversial anti-gay rights Prop 8 initiative in California back in 2008, things – as we used to say back home – blowed up. Rarebit yanked an app from the Mozilla marketplace and in a highly visible move, dating site OK Cupid asked its users not to access the site with Mozilla’s Firefox browser.

Eich fought back, and we witnessed a couple of days of textbook crisis management as the company (and its under-fire CEO) worked to convince the world that a person’s official and personal beliefs can be compartmentalized – that is, you can be anti-equality in your private life but suitably inclusive at work.

Whether that’s true makes for an interesting discussion, but apparently the people whose opinions counted weren’t buying it. The pressure mounted and Eich finally conceded.

Now, an article on the fallout in the influential C|net is indulging a lot of public soul-searching. Are the pro-LGBT rights forces as bad as Eich? Is intolerance of intolerance just as bad as, well, intolerance?

Verily, it’s a crisis over freedom of speech.

Except that it isn’t. We’ve talked about this before. A couple of times, actually. Only this time the chatter isn’t coming from the Right. I certainly respect the conscientious character of the discussion we’re hearing from the progressive wing of the spectrum – we’d all be better off if more people honestly questioned the implications of their actions, so I’m not here with the smackdown.

My answer to these folks is, in brief, that no, this isn’t a problem with free speech. Eich has beliefs, and he donated – legally – to the campaign that was acting in accordance with those beliefs. (That said campaign was engaged in an attempt to deprive Americans of fair treatment before the law is obviously a problem, but for the moment let’s focus on the fact that Eich is entitled to his beliefs and he broke no laws.)

Then, people who disagree exercised their free speech. Rarebit had every right to do what they did, as did OK Cupid. At least one of my friends switched to a different browser, which is what we call “voting with your feet.” In the end, Eich made a decision that he probably felt was in everyone’s best interests, all things considered.

This wasn’t an impingement on free speech. This was free speech. As in, an archetypal example of how it is supposed to work.

Now, I get that it’s uncomfortable. I fully understand how some of those who wanted Eich out are questioning their actions and the impact they had. I respect that.

But here’s the thing: free speech isn’t always comfortable. Doing the right thing might make you feel bad, and you might be well within your rights to do the wrong thing. People sometimes get hurt. Freedom sometimes means conflicts between people and their rights.

Freedom is messy. Sometimes it’s downright ugly. And the guys who framed our system of governance knew it would be.

In the end, opposing Eich was the right thing to do, especially when he made it clear that he wasn’t going to recant or apologize. In this circumstance, it was more than fair to cast an accusing eye on Mozilla – is it really possible for a mission of inclusion to be directed by a man who opposes equal treatment under the law for a significant segment of his employees and customers?

And no, intolerance of intolerance isn’t the same as intolerance. Eich supported an attempt to deprive millions of people the same rights that everyone else enjoys. Nobody sought to deprive Eich of basic human rights based on how he was born. So let’s not be silly.

Brendan Eich has dedicated much of his career to Mozilla, and its open source mission has been a very, very good thing for Internet users. I’d love to hear that he’s gone off, done some soul-searching of his own and concluded that he was wrong. Own up to it, apologize, and commit to actually serving the company’s diversity and inclusion principles – then come back to work.

We’ll all be better off if that happens.


  • Exactly. Freedom of speech is not freedom from the consequences of that speech; you can’t reasonably ask for tolerance of your intolerance.

    • EXACTLY the words I was going to use. Freedom of speech is the freedom from consequences imposed by the government. It has also come to mean freedom from dire consequences imposed by fellow citizens, violence, imprisonment, etc, e.g. protecting the Nazi’s march in Skokie. (Sam, is this right?) However, it doesn’t mean no consequences.

  • Pingback: The Shaming of Brendan Eich | Geekpondering

  • Kristin Knudsen

    Just as freedom of speech has its limits by the nature of its consequences, i.e. yelling fire in a crowded theatre, or shouting “crazy shooter” in a day care, or inciting a riot, the consequences of Eich’s personal intolerance deprives another of their rights. Infringement upon another’s safety in a public arena and declining to allow another their equal rights are two examples where freedom of speech is not absolute due to its effect. In effect though, Eich and the others could technically do what they wished, however they must then be prepared to suffer the state interrupting them from continuing on behalf of their victims, since that is what their “audience” becomes as a result of their voice and actions.

    Kristin Knudsen
    New York

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