Scott posting while I was in the process of composing this post will make it shorter, because “What Scott said” covers some of what I was going to say, in particular with respect to the importance of Eich’s leadership position. I rarely hold a more expansive view of the rights of corporations than conservatives do, but I can’t begrudge them the right to manage their reputation in this manner.
A few further thoughts. First, making this about Eich exercising free speech in favor the passage of Proposition 8 minimizes his critics’ complaint in two important ways.
The initiative process takes legislation out of the hands of the legislature and into the hands of citizens. Material support for an initiative may be construed as speech, but it’s much much more than that: it’s a direct attempt to use the coercive power of the state to remove other people’s rights. This distinction matters, it seems to me, when determining how we think about the speech/action boundary.
Second, he gave material support to a campaign whose central strategy was to dishonestly and maliciously promote the idea that LGBT people living their lives openly and as full citizens constituted nothing less than a clear and present danger to the welfare of children. (See Mark Stern for a depressing reminder of that profoundly odious and illiberal campaign). If he doesn’t share the views advocated in those ads, but merely thought they were a useful means to an end, that doesn’t do him any favors. It’s very easy to be optimistic about LGBT rights in the current environment, and I am indeed optimistic that in the short and medium term, they are going to lose. But in the long run, rollback is not impossible. And from Russia to Uganda to Nigeria, we see this belief—that LGBT rights and freedoms pose a threat to the well-being of children—seems to be, if not a necessary or sufficient ingredient for rollback, certainly a feature that promotes it. As long as the believe Eich was promoting is widespread, the rights of LGBT people, even when achieved, will not be secure. The toxic nature of the message he paid to promote shouldn’t be lost in the shorthand of how we discuss this.
Some of the other the top reactions to Eich’s resignation (usual suspects: Dreher, Sullivan, Friedersdorf) are treating this case as an example of society wading into new, unprecedented illiberal territory. This seems clearly wrong to me. It’s worth keeping two issues separate:
1) Should the political activity of CEOs and other prominent, “public face of”-type employees for major corporations, be associated with the companies they represent?
2) Should promoting the view, as Eich did, that permitting LGBT people to live openly as full and equal citizens constitutes a clear and present danger to the welfare of children be on the list of political activity which we ought to consider shameful and embarrassing?
Insofar as what happened to Eich is demonstrative of a recent social change, the change is about how our society answers question 2, not question 1. CEOs’ political views harming their company’s reputation is old news, going back to public pressure on, and a boycott of Ford Motors in the 20′s over his public promotion of anti-semitic views (Ford wasn’t forced to resign, but he was pressured to issue a public apology and repudiation and cease publication of his anti-semitic newspaper, The Dearborn Independent). The only change we’re seeing here is a minor modification to the list of embarrassing political views. I’m broadly supportive of the argument that we’d be better off focusing our critical attention on corporate policies and behaviors, rather than the ideology of their CEO. But I’m also supportive of the argument appalling attacks on legally and socially vulnerable minorities, when made by powerful, wealthy, and highly respected figures, come with serious reputational consequences. So I’m somewhat conflicted about how to answer question #1. But however it should be answered, our society has been answering it in the same way for a century; the only thing new here is the inclusion of LGBT into the category of minorities for whom public attacks are no longer considered consequence-free.
In general, I do think this line of activism should be focused primarily, if not exclusively, on powerful public figures. In presumption that that our jobs should not be contingent on our politics should be stronger than the degree to which it is currently protected by law. In addition to the distinction between CEO and ordinary employee, I’d also suggest a distinction between CEOs of large companies and small business owners, who lie in a space between the two (assuming we’re only talking about public views, not political actions). So I don’t see much value in a boycott campaign of a farmer’s organic foods store (and a threatened secondary boycott of a pro-gay rights restaurant owner who spoke out against the proposed boycott is even more ridiculous). The injunction to fight actual discrimination, rather than words, seems important here: down the road there’s a college that just kicked a transgender student out of campus housing. And, of course, the state of Oregon is still practicing marriage discrimination! These seem like far more appropriate targets.