GPL author Richard Stallman announced this week that he has rejoined the board of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), which he established in 1985, and is not planning to resign a second time:
“I have an announcement to make. I’m now on the Free Software Foundation Board of Directors once again. We were working on a video to announce this with, but that turned out to be difficult, we didn’t have experience doing that sort of thing so it didn’t get finished but here is the announcement. Some of you will be happy at this, and some might be disappointed, but who knows? In any case, that’s how it is, and I’m not planning to resign a second time.”
In 2019, Stallman resigned as director of the board and president of the FSF, and was subsequently ousted by GNU project maintainers from his position as head of the project. Calls for his removal were precipitated by Stallman’s controversial remarks on rape, assault, and child sex trafficking, along with two decades of behaviors and statements that many have found to be disturbing and offensive. His return came as a shock to the free software community, though some suspect he never really left.
“I did not support the decision to reinstate RMS,” former FSF board member Kat Walsh said after resigning from the board yesterday. “I made my arguments and placed my opposing vote; while I was glad I was able to do that I regret not being able to turn the decision the other way.
“I wish the organization well; my departure is not a rejection of the ideas of free software, only a belief that my role in the organization was no longer the best way to put them forward into the world.”
Stallman’s reinstatement came with a staggering lack of transparency from FSF’s board of directors and has triggered a cascade of condemnation from individuals and organizations across the tech industry. Among the many critical responsibilities it maintains, the FSF currently holds the copyrights to enforce the GPL.
The Open Source Initiative published a statement this week, calling for Stallman’s removal from FSF’s leadership:
The Open Source Initiative calls upon the Free Software Foundation to hold Stallman responsible for past behavior, remove him from the organization’s leadership and work to address the harm he caused to all those he has excluded: those he considers less worthy, and those he has hurt with his words and actions. We will not participate in any events that include Richard M. Stallman and we cannot collaborate with the Free Software Foundation until Stallman is removed from the organization’s leadership.
Red Hat announced that it is suspending all funding of the FSF and any FSF-hosted events. Mozilla joined the Open Source Diversity Community, Outreachy, and the Software Conservancy project in supporting an open letter that calls for the removal of the entire Board of the Free Software Foundation, along with the removal of Stallman from all leadership positions, including the GNU Project. The letter states that the undersigned do not acknowledge Stallman’s leadership of the FSF and do not condone his actions and opinions:
There has been enough tolerance of RMS’s repugnant ideas and behavior. We cannot continue to let one person ruin the meaning of our work. Our communities have no space for people like Richard M. Stallman, and we will not continue suffering his behavior, giving him a leadership role, or otherwise holding him and his hurtful and dangerous ideology as acceptable.
The petition has been signed by more than 2400 free software advocates. Notable signatories include Molly de Blanc (Debian Project, GNOME Foundation), Elana Hashman (Debian Technical Committee Member, Open Source Initiative Director, Kubernetes SIG Instrumentation Chair), Neil McGovern (GNOME Foundation Executive Director, Former Debian Project Leader), and Luis Villa (Former Director of the Open Source Initiative and the GNOME Foundation; contributor to the GPL v3 drafting process).
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) published a statement urging the voting members of the FSF board to call a special meeting to reconsider Stallman’s reinstatement, in support of the “long-term viability of the free software movement:”
Free software is a vital component of an open and just technological society: its key institutions and individuals cannot place misguided feelings of loyalty above their commitment to that cause. The movement for digital freedom is larger than any one individual contributor, regardless of their role. Indeed, we hope that this moment can be an opportunity to bring in new leaders and new ideas to the free software movement.
Stallman still has many staunch supporters, as more than 2,000 people have signed an open letter in support of him and his leadership. They contend that removing RMS “will hurt FSF’s image and will deal a significant blow to the momentum of the free software movement.”
Stallman is still listed among the FSF’s board of directors, but the board appears to be reorganizing. A preliminary statement on upcoming changes to the board’s governance said they are moving to adopt a transparent, formal process for identifying candidates and appointing new board members. The board intends to require existing board members to submit to this process as well “to decide which of them remain on the board,” with a deadline of 30 days to complete the changes.
By allowing Stallman to resume his position, the FSF squandered the opportunity it had to redefine itself following his resignation in 2019. The organization missed the chance to carve out a new future that would be free from his damaging influence. If the board doesn’t act in the best interests of the greater community, by remedying its lack of transparency and accountability, it may permanently resign the organization to irrelevance.