Richard Stallman, free software movement activist and originator of the “copyleft” concept, has resigned from his position as director of the board and president of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), which he established in 1985. This resignation comes on the heels of his resignation from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) after remarks he made regarding a 17-year old victim of sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, characterizing her as seeming “entirely willing.”
Stallman blamed media coverage for misinterpreting his comments as a defense of Epstein two days before announcing his resignation from MIT on his personal blog:
To the MIT community, I am resigning effective immediately from my position in CSAIL at MIT. I am doing this due to pressure on MIT and me over a series of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations.
The remarks in question were sent on a department-wide CSAIL mailing list in response to an MIT student email calling for a protest against Jeffrey Epstein’s donation to the school. Selam Jie Gano, the MIT graduate who exposed Stallman’s comments in a post on Medium, also leaked the full thread to Vice.
In the email thread, which was also circulated to undergraduate students, Stallman became pedantic about the definition of assault and the use of the term ‘rape’ after a student pointed out the laws of the location and the victim’s age:
I think it is morally absurd to define “rape” in a way that depends on minor details such as which country it was in or whether the victim was 18 years old or 17.
These comments caused media organizations to dig up old posts from Stallman’s blog where he demands an end to the censorship of “child pornography” and says he is “skeptical of the claim that voluntarily pedophilia harms children.”
Why Stallman felt it necessary to lend his controversial views to public comments on rape, assault, and child sex trafficking on a public mailing list is a mystery, but he has a long history of being outspoken when it comes to politics and civil liberties.
This particular incident seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, unleashing a flood of outrage from the the free software and broader tech communities who demanded Stallman’s removal from the FSF. Critics cited two decades of behaviors and statements that many have found to be disturbing and offensive. The Geek Feminism Wiki maintains a catalog that includes some of these references.
“The free software community looks the other way while they build their empires on licenses that sustain Stallman’s power,” Software engineer and founder of RailsBridge Sarah Mei said in a Tweetstorm calling on the FSF to remove Stallman from his positions of influence.
“Your refusal to part ways with him – despite well-known incidents that have pushed women and others out of free software for decades – might have been ok 10 years ago. Maybe even two years ago. It’s not ok now.”
The Software Freedom Conservancy also issued a statement calling for Stallman’s removal, titled “Richard Stallman Does Not and Cannot Speak for the Free Software Movement:”
When considered with other reprehensible comments he has published over the years, these incidents form a pattern of behavior that is incompatible with the goals of the free software movement. We call for Stallman to step down from positions of leadership in our movement.
We reject any association with an individual whose words and actions subvert these goals. We look forward to seeing the FSF’s action in this matter and want to underscore that allowing Stallman to continue to hold a leadership position would be an unacceptable compromise. Most importantly, we cannot support anyone, directly or indirectly, who condones the endangerment of vulnerable people by rationalizing any part of predator behavior.
In a 2017 Twitter thread, Mei shared some context on her perspective of how Stallman’s influence has had a ripple effect of damage throughout the free software and open source communities:
In the 90s, Richard Stallman’s attitude towards women alienated me (and many others) from any interest in or support for “free software.” Viewing software through the Richard Stallman/GNU/”free as in freedom” lens would have run our industry into the ground. But it was the only alternative to proprietary software for ~20 years. So lots of folks worked on it despite finding Stallman problematic. This was the period when women largely declined to be part of computing, despite having pretty reasonable representation through the 80s.
In the early 2000s, “open source” was a breath of fresh air. All of the usefulness! None of the built-in arrogance, privilege, or misogyny! But just because it wasn’t built in doesn’t mean it disappeared. As folks converted, the behaviors normalized by Stallman and others followed. Our drive now for diversity/inclusion wasn’t even conceivable until we discarded GNU, Stallman, and “free software” in favor of “open source.” It’s not an accident that the communities who still, today, embrace that outdated philosophy are the least diverse and the most hostile.
Stallman is the author of the GPL, which he wrote with the help of lawyers. For the most part, the free software community is able to objectively separate the license from the man who conceived it. The FSF’s sister organization in Europe welcomed Stallman’s resignation, echoing the sentiments of many who value his contributions but are unwilling to support his public representation of the organization:
On 16 September, one of our independent sister organizations, the US-based Free Software Foundation (FSF), announced the resignation of Richard M. Stallman as its president. While we recognize Stallman’s role in founding the Free Software movement, we welcome the decision.
The FSF has the opportunity to redefine itself after the resignation of its founder and supporters are hopeful that the free software movement can find a better way forward without Stallman’s influence.
“I believe in Free Software and have published most of my work open source under LGPL/GPL/AGPL (notably including Cydia, Cycript, WinterBoard, ldid, and now my work on Orchid),” software engineer Jay Freeman said. “I’m glad to see Richard Stallman leave, and hope this starts a new era for the Free Software Foundation.”
The was the straw (perhaps heavy straw) that broke the camel’s back. The tech sector has had enough of Stallman’s angry-and-esoteric commentaries.
Stallman should be commended for his contributions to GNU. He really should. But he has ranted for years in an insulting and demeaning manner – without any major sanction (beyond being isolated outside of Big Tech). That changed today.
If this should have been the straw that broke that back or not, will be debated for years to come. But it has come.