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How Mozilla botched CEO's ouster

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
April 4, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich resigned after an uproar over his 2008 donation to California's Proposition 8 campaign.
Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich resigned after an uproar over his 2008 donation to California's Proposition 8 campaign.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • LZ: Mozilla CEO resigned after firestorm over 2008 donation to anti-same-sex marriage Prop 8
  • He says this is less a free speech issue than a poor move in the first place by Mozilla board
  • Far more in U.S., particularly millennials (Mozilla's consumers) are pro-gay marriage than in 2008
  • LZ: Mozilla should have planned how it would handle the inevitable backlash over Eich

Editor's note: LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor, a senior writer for ESPN and lecturer at Northwestern University. Commentary by the former Hechinger Institute fellow has been recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- We've all done things in our past we might prefer the general public not talk about, but only the lucky few get to be the targets of whole industries dedicated to digging those things up.

Targets like celebrities.

Politicians.

And apparently CEOs, that is if the abrupt resignation of Mozilla's new chief Brendan Eich is any indication.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

For many, the story of Eich -- who stepped down this week amid criticism of his contribution to a 2008 initiative to ban same-sex marriage-- is one of freedom of speech trampled by the intolerant.

I don't see it that way.

Don't get me wrong; to paraphrase Voltaire, I disagree with Eich's views on marriage equality but will defend to the death his First Amendment right to express them. But as I've written in the past, the First Amendment doesn't protect him, Mozilla, or anyone else from others' using their First Amendment right to signal their disapproval.

To me, Eich's case is about the power of information, and how -- with technology, 24-hour news and social media- -everyone's past is just a hashtag away from being the present.

Sometimes this is a good thing for the public, like the digging up of David Duke's KKK past as he attempted to climb the political ladder. Sometimes the information is significant, but used mainly to score points against a political opponent, as in the GOP's escalation of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky saga. But more often than not it's about gossip to sell magazines or get clicks on a website.

NeNe Leakes, one of the stars of "The Real Housewives of Atlanta," for example, is currently trying to explain why a 20-year-old mug shot of her is on the cover of Star Magazine. The Robertson family members, of Duck Dynasty fame, were exposed as frauds after photos of the clan looking less like down-home folks and more like a J.Crew ad began circulating on the Internet. The more notable a person is the riskier the strategy of distancing him or herself from the past in hopes that it just goes away. Did Mozilla even think about this?

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To Eich's credit, he has stuck with his position on same-sex marriage despite a torrent of complaint from inside and outside his company. That the company didn't anticipate the backlash is the real head-scratcher.

Six years ago, when Eich donated to an anti-marriage equality initiative, less than 40% of Americans favored marriage for same-sex couples. Today 54% do, including nearly 70% of people ages 18-29. That latter number is particularly important to Mozilla because 1) no group goes online more than millennials, 2) no group supports marriage equality more than millennials, and 3) millennials are a significant portion of current and future employees. The Eich fallout is less about the First Amendment and more about a business not understanding its business.

The country's present attitude regarding same-sex marriage is not top secret. And neither is Eich's past. Mozilla should've had a better strategy than "let's hope nobody notices."

Yet the fact that the board caved to the pressure, instead of standing behind its choice, suggested it was completely blindsided by the uproar. This is mind-boggling considering that the controversies surrounding Chick-fil-A and Paula Deen did not happen in an alternate universe. By all accounts Eich, who helped develop some of the Web's most important technologies, was qualified for the job and Mozilla would likely be hurt by his resignation.

But Mozilla is an activist organization more than a money-making corporation. The Apples and Googles of the world can lure top young talent with money and perks. Mozilla's recruiting success depends on its ability to sell its mission. Thus the effectiveness of the CEO rests heavily on his or her ability to foster a community, not just make a buck.

And generally speaking, discrimination is a community buzzkill.

Still, the company's leadership, not Eich, is to blame for this PR nightmare, They're the ones who thought what happened in 2008 stays in 2008.

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