Some Thoughts on Brendan Eich

In the U.S. people can be fired from jobs for political views. In 2002, Goodwill Industries fired Michael Italie, a sewing machine operative, for being a member of the Socialist Workers Party. He was not fired for anything he had done at work.

Goodwill makes no bones about the fact that it fired Italie not for any on-the-job conduct but for holding views it does not wish to be associated with. “We cannot have anyone who is attempting to subvert the United States of America,” Dennis Pastrana, chief executive of Goodwill in South Florida, told the Miami Herald on Oct. 30. “His political beliefs are those of a communist who would like to destroy private ownership of American enterprises and install a communist regime in the United States.”

According to Lida Rodriguez-Taseff of the ACLU commenting on the case “The law is pretty clear that a private employer can fire someone based on their political speech even when that political speech does not affect the terms and conditions of employment.”

Bryan Keefer, a research assistant who blogged about political rhetoric online, quit his job after being told that criticism of left leaning politicians could get him fired.

According to Missouri Lawyers Weekly

Most people are familiar with the standard protected classes: race, sex, age, religion, etc. But beyond that, many people feel that if something is unfair, then it must somehow be illegal.

Yet that is often not the case, at least in employment law.

You can be fired for a host of reasons in at-will employment, such as for being a Cubs fan (an option I’m thankful my employers have decided to forego) or for not inviting someone to your happy hour (something you would never do, of course, because you like everyone you work with). And, perhaps most pertinently these days, you can usually be fired for being of the “wrong” political affiliation (not your political affiliation – the other one).

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is legislation that has been proposed that would make sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes under federal law. However, currently, you can be fired for being gay in 29 states.

A school administrator at a Catholic school in Ohio was fired last year for a Facebook post supporting marriage equality.

Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Archdiocese has a new contract for the teachers in its schools that clamps down on their personal lives, including their ability to voice political beliefs that run counter to those endorsed by the Catholic Church. Teachers are prevented from expressing support for “living together outside of marriage,” “sexual activity out of wedlock,” “homosexual lifestyle,” “abortion,” “a surrogate mother,” “in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination.”

When I first heard that Mozilla’s new CEO had taken a stance about gay marriage, it was in a comment thread. There were some intimations that perhaps people should not use Firefox, but I hesitated to jump to any immediate conclusions in large part because the information was so vague and I didn’t know whether or not it was even correct.

In the past, I’ve struggled in the past over the question of whether or not I should boycott a product because of the political beliefs the a company owners. Frequently, my decision turns on how intimately the company is tied up with the beliefs of its owners. To take Hobby Lobby as an example, I wouldn’t boycott the company simply because the owners privately hold beliefs that are counter to my own, but because they have made their corporation an instrument of their beliefs.

Although the above cases regarding people who were terminated for their political views were legal, I can’t help feeling that employers in many of these cases have overstepped their bounds and when I first heard that people were calling for Brendan Eich to resign, I felt conflicted. Then I made an analogy.

Eich, was the CEO, a very different role than that of a lower level employee. My sister, as it happens, is a C-suite executive. There has been the occasional speculation as to whether or not she will be made CEO when, and if, her boss retires. Now, I’m not saying that anyone has said that she will be, but who might succeed the current CEO has been brought up and my sister’s name has, at times, been among them. Now, we live in Baltimore, which has a majority black population. My sister is white, but many of the people with whom she works are black, as are many of the other people with whom her company must cooperate in government or at other companies. Were my sister, or any of the other people who have been talked about as possible CEOs, to give a large amount of money to an organization actively fighting to end affirmative action would this disqualify them from consideration? In all likelihood it would, because it would make it very difficult for her to lead the organization. (For the record, this is not my sister’s view. It’s purely hypothetical.)

Of course, it was unfortunate that Eich was elevated to this position to begin with. He was one of the co-founders of Mozilla and had been the Chief Technology Officer. In 2008, while holding his previous position, he donated money to support Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative to ban same-sex weddings in that state. The company would have been well within its rights to fire him for that since firing people for their political positions is perfectly legal. However, I would have felt that the company was overstepping its bounds much as I feel that Goodwill Industries was wrong when it fired Michael Italie for being a socialist, unless the company felt that it directly affected his ability to do his job. In the case of his role as CEO, it is clear that it did hamper his ability to do his job. In fact, his views directly threatened the company. According to The New Yorker

The real mystery here, then, is not why Eich stepped down but why he ever got hired in the first place. His unquestioned technical ability notwithstanding, this was a candidate who divided the board, who had already been controversial, and whose promotion was guaranteed to generate reams of bad publicity.

What has puzzled me is the hand-wringing that has accompanied Eich’s departure. Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic, says

Calls for his ouster were premised on the notion that all support for Proposition 8 was hateful, and that a CEO should be judged not just by his or her conduct in the professional realm, but also by political causes he or she supports as a private citizen.If that attitude spreads, it will damage our society.

Conor Friedersdorf is wrong to wonder what will happen “if this attitude spreads.” This “attitude”, the notion that an employee can be fired for political views, already exists. The only thing surprising here is that an CEO has been held to the same standard as other employees. I hope that conservatives mount an enthusiastic defense the next time a seamster in a factory is fired. Somehow, I doubt they will.

Update: Since posting this, I came across another post pointing out that Brendan Eich resigned, he was not fired and that he was not forced out by employees. I was aware of that and it is why I wrote that the company would have been able to fire him for his political views. However, in retrospect, it could be misleading to someone who wasn’t already informed about the situation.

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