The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is hemorrhaging board members and management following the reinstatement of Richard Stallman. The GPL author and founder of the FSF announced last week that he had rejoined the board and is not planning to resign a second time. An open letter signed by more than 3,000 people called for the removal of Stallman from all leadership positions, including the GNU project, and removal of the entire Board of the FSF. So far it has gained support from Red hat, Mozilla, Outreachy, the Software Conservancy project, and many other high profile organizations.
“We are long past the point where we can pretend that the most important thing about software freedom is the software,” Mozilla Engineering Community Manager Michael Hoye said in signing support for the open letter. “We cannot demand better from the internet if we do not demand better from our leaders, our colleagues and ourselves.”
In addition to the resignation of former FSF board member Kat Walsh, the organization’s executive director, deputy director, and chief technology officer have also resigned. They published a joint statement, reaffirming their commitment to the mission of free software, despite their departure:
As members of FSF management, we have decided to resign, with specific end dates to be determined. We believe in the importance of the FSF’s mission and feel a new team will be better placed to implement recent changes in governance. Free software and copyleft are critical issues of our time, and the FSF is, and should continue to be, the organization leading this movement. FSF staff have our utmost respect, support, and appreciation, and it has been a privilege to work with you all. Our team’s mutual goal is to ensure a smooth transition while supporting the necessary renovation of the foundation’s governance.
An oddly-timed tweet announced a new published statement the FSF board voted on, which “condemns misogyny, racism, and other bigotry as well as defamation, intimidation, and unfair attacks on free thought and speech.” The statement was met with ridicule and outrage on Twitter, as it hints at the defense Stallman used when he resigned as the FSF board director, claiming he had been subject to “a series of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations.”
Recent statements published to the FSF website indicate that its leadership is doubling down on the decision to reinstate Stallman:
Some of our colleagues in the FSF have decided to resign. We are grateful for the good work they have done for so long, and we will miss them. We regret losing them; we regret the situation that has motivated them to leave.
We appreciate their strong commitment to free software and we want to find replacements with a similar competence and commitment. We are open to suggestions and applications for these positions.
Finally, we would like to thank the numerous friends across the free software movement who have recently joined as well as those who have left and provided suggestions for helping us through this difficult time.
The FSF seems to be counting the resignations as an acceptable loss, as funds from donors are evaporating. Several organizations have discontinued financial support for the organization. Most notably, Red Hat, a long-time donor with hundreds of contributors who have submitted millions of lines of code to projects stewarded by the FSF, publicly discontinued support for the organization and any of its events. In addition to $708,016 in membership dues, the FSF received $1,383,003 in contributions, gifts, and grants, which makes up the bulk of its annual revenue, according to a recent report on Charity Navigator.
Stallman is synonymous with the FSF and his reinstatement puts many free software advocates in a difficult position. Some cannot easily write off the entire organization, as it is engaged in important work. The FSF publishes the GPL, LGPL, and FDL licenses. It also holds copyrights to defend free software from those who would seek to make it proprietary and has the power to enforce the GPL. As part of its Free Software Licensing and Compliance Lab, the organization works to ensure that free software distributors respect their obligations to pass on the user freedoms that these licenses are meant to convey.
The Fedora Council cited the FSF’s important function when publishing a statement on why it is pulling funding from the organization:
Along with many in the free and open source software world, the Fedora Council was taken aback that the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has allowed Richard Stallman to rejoin their Board of Directors given his history of abuse and harassment. The Fedora Council does not normally involve itself with the governance of other projects. However, this is an exceptional case due to the FSF’s stewardship of the GPL family of licenses, which are critical for the work we do.
The council will not provide funding or attend any FSF-sponsored events where Stallman is a featured speaker or exhibitor, and stated that this also applies to any organization where he has a leadership role.
WordPress Responds to Stallman’s Reinstatement
Up until today, WordPress had not published an official statement on Stallman’s reinstatement to the FSF board. The WordPress Foundation website lists the Free Software Foundation as one of the project’s inspirations. WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg was also among the FSF’s list of patrons in previous years.
After asking WordPress’ executive director Josepha Haden Chomphosy for a comment regarding the matter, she published a statement:
In short, I do not support his return as a board member.
It makes me proud that the WordPress project embodies the best traditions of open source and retires outdated traditions, or shibboleths, that do not have a place in our mission: to democratize publishing and grow the open web. For years, this community has been committed to championing underrepresented voices and maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for those we rarely see in open source.
Although the statement is published on her personal blog, Haden Chomphosy confirmed that this is the WordPress project’s official stance on Stallman’s reinstatement. The statement quietly calls out Stallman’s lack of accountability and the fact that he has not publicly acknowledged how harmful his behavior has been to the free software community:
The high standards for welcoming behavior are held across the board. WordPress contributors lead with accountability, acknowledgment of error, and a genuine desire to grow based on feedback. Under the guidance of many thoughtful leaders, WordPress makes space for those who are committed to growth.
The message is more focused on the positive aspects of the WordPress community and its values but is clear in the first paragraph: WordPress does not support Stallman’s return as an FSF board member.