Will the sunshine disinfect or burn?

The internet never forgets.

Whether it is Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in Washington concerning his social media company or Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro losing his private-sector job due to social media postings, it is continually growing harder to hide from the public eye.

The democratization of information enabled by the internet was supposed to herald a new dawn for transparency. That transparency would — ideally — provide a more ethical, responsive society and government. After all, they say “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Maybe this is the observation of a light-skinned guy coming out of a Maine winter, but too much sunlight can burn. And that is what we are faced with today.

Isgro chose to pursue political office. By all accounts, in personal interactions, he was affable, respectful, and a champion for his city. He was supported by residents of all political stripes and is helping lead Waterville into a better future. So far, so good.

Karen Heck, left, former mayor of Waterville, and Hilary Koch, a Waterville resident, take out forms at Waterville City Hall to begin an effort to oust Mayor Nick Isgro. Susan Sharon | Maine Public

However, with social media, he remained on stage even when not actively discharging his mayoral duties. And, when he tweeted “eat it” at David Hogg, a teenage activist, Isgro found himself subject to an onslaught. His predecessor (and former supporter) Karen Heck began to circulate a recall petition, and voters may have the opportunity to express their thoughts at the ballot box.

If that was the end of the story, it would not be much of a story. A public official makes a public comment and ignites a debate leading to a public process which might cause loss of public office. In other news, water remains wet.

But instead, Isgro now finds himself unemployed. He had been working at a Maine bank as a controller, and by all accounts was good at it. Whether he was terminated or departed under pressure, the fact remains his public actions had private consequences.

Sunshine burned him.

He is not the first to go through this. Almost exactly four years ago, Brendan Eich, the CEO of Mozilla — a software company — was pushed out of the company under intense pressure. His crime? In 2008, six years before, he had donated $1,000 to the Proposition 8 campaign in California which banned gay marriage.

Nevermind that there was no evidence he had ever discriminated against his employees. Nevermind that Proposition 8 won with 52.24 percent of the vote (a greater margin than ranked-choice voting in Maine). Nevermind that it was the exact same position as Barack Obama in 2008. And nevermind that he never made public pronouncements about his personal beliefs.

Nope. He dared agree with (at the time) a majority of fellow Californians on a political issue which later became unpopular. Therefore, he had to lose his job.

So much for sunshine.

Now, private organizations can do whatever they please. Neither the Mozilla CEO Eich nor Isgro have any right to a job. Yet in both cases, they lost their jobs not because of a lack of confidence in their capabilities, but rather their political opinions.

That’s a dangerous road. As we’ve seen with the Facebook hearings, the data generated by each of us lives throughout cyberspace. In decades past, an intemperate remark may have been made to close family and friends and maintained within the circle of trust, without public airing. Now, a tweet or status has its own life. Those digital words are bullets; once sent, you can’t bring them back.

Is there a day in the future where employers will scour the internet — or hire others to do so — to see whether employees are expressing goodthink online? Or whether they dabbled in ungoodthink in the past? After all, a Maine principal stated not so long ago that “the only terrorists we need to fear are the domestic white ‘Christian’ men with easy access to guns.” He was reprimanded and (rightly) remains employed.

Too much sunlight can burn. How we, as a society, decide to balance political opinions and private lives is something we need to decide. Unfortunately, the current path leads to a dangerous place. If places of employment start imposing political litmus tests … well, someone once said “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

I think I read that on the internet.


Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.