The Spirit Of The First Amendment Is As Important As The Law


The issue of free speech has been much in the headlines of late, most recently with the situation surrounding Brendan Eich who was forced to step down as Mozilla’s CEO because of a political contribution he made to an anti-gay marriage group.

The cartoon above from the usually excellent xkcd illustrates a common defense of the sort of backlash that Eich saw. It points out that those defending Eich’s 1st amendment rights are wrong. Mozilla is a private company, and can hire and fire as they please up to and including a CEO who has caused controversy with a political contribution he made.

Eich resigned his position, so he wasn’t specifically fired, but the resignation was essentially forced on him by backlash from those who are intolerant of his private political activities.

That’s a correct argument, but I’d argue in response that just because a specific instance of intolerance for a certain point of view is legal in that said intolerance didn’t come from the state (i.e. cops aren’t arresting you for saying something) doesn’t mean it’s right.

The First Amendment, as a law, doesn’t prohibit companies from firing employees with controversial politics. Or bloggers from banishing commenters who disagree with the blogger. Nor should it. But that’s the First Amendment as law. There is also the question of the spirit of the First Amendment, and a lot of the intolerance we see for dissenting viewpoints these days doesn’t live up to it.

That includes Eich getting fired despite an exemplary record of professional conduct for a small political contribution to a cause that, at the time, he shared with none other than Barack Obama.

I tend to see the blog comments here on Say Anything as a microcosm for this issue. SAB gets a lot of comments, and with the exception of people posting spam or generally disgusting things, I allow all points of view. I welcome disagreement and criticism. I think it makes the discussions here on SAB more interesting, and I think the exposure to criticism and dissent makes me stronger as a writer.

I am not afraid of interacting with those I disagree with. I’m also not afraid to see movies starring actors whose political views I think are silly, or reading books by authors whose opinions I find downright obnoxious.

The price of living in a free society is respecting dissenting opinions. I don’t know if it’s a product of the internet age, where we’re all exposed to one another’s views more intimately and regularly than ever before, but we seem to have lost some of that respect for dissent.

It’s not just Eich. It’s wedding photographers and cake bakers fined for refusing to work a gay wedding. It’s a national law that fines us for not purchasing health insurance. Increasingly, Americans seem fine with laws and/or private actions that curtail our right to dissent, or even to say no to something we’d rather not do.

This has little to do with the notion of liberty.

So, yes, companies are free to fire employees with political views they dislike. And bloggers are free to ban commenters they disagree with.

Those things are legal, but shouldn’t we aspire to something better than that?