No alt-del-esc for Microsoft

It's always a pleasure to see an independent weekly breaking news of national importance, which The Stranger (Seattle) is doing in a story involving Microsoft, an African American megachurch pastor and a proposed gay-rights bill in the state legislature. In a cover story from this week's issue, Sandeep Kaushik reports on how Pastor Ken Hutcherson and Microsoft vice president and general counsel Bradley Smith have sharply different memories of their conversations about the gay-rights bill. Microsoft says it decided to take a neutral stance on the bill before Hutcherson met with Smith. Both Hutcherson and the bill's sponsor believe Microsoft is not telling the truth.

Well, Hutcherson puts it more bluntly than that:

In previous days, Microsoft had confirmed to other publications, in particular the New York Times, The Stranger's original report that Smith had met with Hutcherson, and that the company had taken a "neutral" stance on the bill this year after supporting it in previous years. However, in an e-mail to the company's 35,000 United States employees last Friday night, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer denied that the meetings with Hutcherson had influenced the company's switch. Ballmer wrote that he had "done a lot of soul searching over the past 24 hours on this subject," and that the company was "thinking hard about what is the right balance to strike -- when should a company take a position on a broader social issue, and when should it not?"

Hutcherson expressed disappointment with Ballmer's statement -- "Steve Ballmer, I believe, is a liar" -- and said in no uncertain terms that Microsoft was not being forthright about the substance of the conversations company executives had with him, and about the timing of the company's decision. "The company lied, and 'the Black Man' is not going to lie down and say 'okay,'" he said, referencing his nickname around the church office. He added, "Evidently they don't know that I won't keep my mouth shut about unrighteousness."

Hutcherson's further explanation of his meeting with Smith shows that he has no shortage of memorable remarks:

Hutcherson said that he asked for a meeting with Microsoft after becoming upset that two company employees had testified in favor of the bill on February 1. He first met with Smith and three other lower-ranking executives on February 23.

At that meeting, Smith made it clear to the pastor that the company supported the bill, Hutcherson said. Smith told him, he said, that the company had recently been asked by GLEAM, the gay and lesbian employees group at Microsoft, to come out in favor of same-sex marriage, but the company had said no. Smith went on to say that Microsoft did support the anti-discrimination legislation, and he described it as a "civil rights issue" -- a red flag for Hutcherson, who is African American -- Hutcherson said. The pastor recalled asking Smith a question: "You won't stand up for two men or two women getting married, but you will put your power behind a guy who wants to dress up in a dress and come to work?"

Smith replied, according to Hutcherson's recollection, "That's our policy. We thought this is a good bill to stand behind." Hutcherson then said he told Smith he would organize a national boycott of the company if it did not withdraw its support for the bill. "You're not going to like me in your world. I am going to give you something to fear Christians about," he said he told Smith. "I told him, 'You have a week'" to decide, Hutcherson said.

Smith replied to inquiries from The Stranger during a business trip to Europe:

Smith offered a very different impression of the discussion. He said the bulk of the conversation was taken up with a discussion of the confusion about Microsoft's position on the bill that had been created by two employees who had testified on February 1. Smith had read the testimony that morning, and felt there was some confusion. Smith recalled telling Hutcherson that "the company wasn't involved in this" and that "the company hadn't taken a position" on the bill.

"He told me that he thought that we should fire the employees," Smith said. He added, "It didn't strike me as a situation where it was appropriate to fire people." He did agree with Hutcherson that the testimony "created the impression that the company was supporting a bill when the company wasn't involved," he said, adding, "In my mind, that was what the meeting was about." Smith also added that Hutcherson had requested that the company issue a letter stating that it was neutral on the bill, or that the bill was unnecessary, but that he declined.

Both sides in this debate have spoken of boycotting Microsoft (blogger John Aravosis, for instance, recommends using Firefox instead of Internet Explorer as one punitive response). Some of us who spend much of our time shackled to a laptop can enjoy the idea of a Microsoft-free workday, if only on the grounds of aesthetics and supporting innovative shareware.

Smith argues that Microsoft does not make policy based on impending boycotts: "Almost every large corporation does receive at least monthly -- often weekly -- letters from groups threatening to organize boycotts. You can't run your business on that basis."

That could well be true, though the battling boycott threats of this story make it more interesting as a news story.

Tim Gill, founder of Quark Inc., has long linked his software (including Quark XPress) to pro-gay activism. Are there other examples of software companies that take clear sides in the nation's debate about sex and marriage?

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