The Free Software Foundation’s board of directors issued a statement today regarding the controversial return of Richard M. Stallman (RMS) to its ranks, alongside a statement of Stallman’s own.
The controversy in brief
RMS has never been known for personal tact or diplomacy, but his 2019 decision to defend MIT computer science Professor Marvin Minsky was the beam which broke the camel’s back. Minsky was a sometime associate of notorious pedophile and trafficker Jeffrey Epstein; Epstein survivor Virginia Giuffre stated under deposition that she had been directed to sleep with Minsky when she was 17.
In the attempt to defend Minsky, RMS declared it “morally absurd” to call statutory rape “rape,” and he spun an elaborate scenario regarding the likelihood that Giuffre—whom RMS had never met—would have “appeared entirely willing” to Minsky.
RMS also found it important, during that conversation, to point out the evils he perceives in Google Drive:
In response to the enormous backlash both he and the Free Software Foundation faced due to these remarks, RMS resigned from the FSF board. He announced his own return to the board 18 months later—a move which was not well received by a significant part of the open source community.
The FSF’s April 12 statement
According to today’s statement, the voting members of the Free Software Foundation voted to appoint RMS to a board seat once more, but only “after several months of thorough discussion and thoughtful deliberation.” The board’s statement goes on to describe a “planned flow of information” to be “executed in a timely manner” and “delivered in the proper sequence.”
Instead, the world discovered that RMS was back on the board of the Free Software Foundation when he self-announced it at the FSF’s LibrePlanet conference this March. RMS declared “I’m [back] on the Free Software Foundation board of directors […] that’s how it is. And I’m not planning to resign a second time.”
The board goes on to state that “the announcement by RMS at LibrePlanet was a complete surprise to staff, [LibrePlanet organizers], to LibrePlanet speakers and to the exhibitors,” and that the board “had hoped for a more inclusive and thoughtful process.”
Apart from the board’s own shock at RMS’s self-announced return, the most salient part of its statement was its reason for approving RMS’ return in the first place:
We decided to bring RMS back because we missed his wisdom. His historical, legal and technical acumen on free software is unrivaled. He has a deep sensitivity to the ways that technologies can contribute to both the enhancement and the diminution of basic human rights. His global network of connections is invaluable. He remains the most articulate philosopher and an unquestionably dedicated advocate of freedom in computing.
The FSF statement acknowledges that “his personal style remains troubling for some,” but the FSF states that a majority of the board “feel[s] his behavior has moderated.” It also believes that “his thinking strengthens the work of the FSF in pursuit of its mission.”
Stallman’s personal April 12 statement
Stallman opens his own statement by declaring “ever since my teenage years, I felt as if there were a filmy curtain separating me from other people my age,” and that he eventually realized his own failure to understand “the subtle cues that other people were responding to.”
Although relatable, this sets the tone for RMS’ entire statement: for better or for worse, it’s about him. He does acknowledge his own social failings, saying “some have described me as being ‘tone-deaf,’ and that is fair.” Unfortunately, he goes on to demonstrate this by declaring, during discussion of his defense of the late Marvin Minsky, that he “knew Minksy only distantly”—and he goes on, in the same paragraph, to declare without obvious connection that “police brutality makes me angry.”
RMS immediately follows this startling paragraph with the declaration that he was “right to talk about the injustice to Minsky,” saving an admission of his own tone-deafness and failure to acknowledge the context as a codicil.
It’s not difficult to see in RMS a person who doesn’t intend to do anyone any harm—but it’s also not difficult to see someone who does harm, repeatedly, while learning very little from it. RMS declared that “I teach myself to recognize when I should [treat people better],” and that over time, he improves—but it’s difficult to find any evidence of improvement in his statement.
Neither the FSF’s statement or RMS’s seem likely to significantly change anyone’s opinion of his reinstatement. The pro-RMS faction will likely continue arguing that RMS is simply misunderstood and that, effectively, the onus is on the rest of the world to work around it. The impact of these statements on those who disapprove of RMS’s reinstatement seems even less momentous.
Bradley Kuhn, former member of the FSF board and current Policy Fellow of the Software Freedom Conservancy, sums up the “RMS has not changed” position quite well:
The real victims in this entire situation have been generally ignored. We all must remember that the victims are Ms. Giuffre and other women whom Epstein sex-trafficked. Much work and research has been done about how to interact with victims of sex trafficking in a way that is trauma-informed, and how to treat victims of such horrible acts with respect.
These respective statements from the FSF and RMS fail to do that; there is no apology from RMS nor FSF to Ms. Guiffre, who is the person who was harmed most by RMS’ statements. The statement mentions punishment for bad actors but makes no effort to assist, apologize and help the people who were primarily harmed by RMS’s statements.