The Board of Directors of the Free Software Foundation issued a statement today regarding the controversial return of Richard M. Stallman (RMS) to its ranks. Stallman also released a statement.
The controversy in a nutshell
RMS has never been known for its personal tact or diplomacy, but its decision in 2019 to defend MIT computer science professor Marvin Minsky was the beam that broke the camel’s back. Minsky was once an associate of notorious pedophile and trafficker Jeffrey Epstein; Epstein survivor Virginia Giuffre stated under affidavit that she was ordered to sleep with Minsky when she was 17.
In an effort to defend Minsky, RMS stated that it was “morally absurd” to call statutory rape “rape”, and devised an elaborate scenario regarding the likelihood that Giuffre – whom RMS had never met – was “completely willing” would have been for Minsky.
RMS thought it was important too, during That conversation, to point out the evil he observes in Google Drive:
In response to the massive backlash both he and the Free Software Foundation faced as a result of these comments, RMS resigned from the FSF board. He announced his own return to the board 18 months later – a move that was not well received by a significant portion of the open source community.
The FSF statement of April 12
According to today’s statement, the voting members of the Free Software Foundation voted to reinstate RMS to a board seat, but only “after several months of thorough discussion and thoughtful deliberation.” The board’s statement further describes a “planned flow of information” that must be “executed in a timely manner” and “delivered in sequential order.”
Instead, the world learned that RMS was back on the board of the Free Software Foundation when he himself announced it at the FSF’s LibrePlanet conference in March. RMS stated, “I am [back] on the board of directors of the Free Software Foundation […] that’s how it is. And I’m not going to resign a second time.”
The board further stated that “The announcement by RMS at LibrePlanet came as a complete surprise to the staff, [LibrePlanet organizers]to LibrePlanet speakers and exhibitors” and that the board “had hoped for a more inclusive and thoughtful process.”
Aside from the board’s own shock at RMS’s self-announced return, the most glaring part of the statement was the reason for approving RMS’s return in the first place:
We decided to bring back RMS because we missed his wisdom. His historical, legal and technical understanding of free software is unparalleled. He has a deep sensitivity to the ways in which technologies can contribute to both the improvement and the reduction of basic human rights. His worldwide network of connections is invaluable. He remains the most eloquent philosopher and an unquestionably committed advocate of freedom in computers.
The FSF statement acknowledges that “his personal style remains troubling to some,” but the FSF states that a majority of the board “consider[s] his behavior is moderate.” The foundation also believes that “his thinking strengthens the work of the FSF in pursuing its mission.”
Stallman’s personal statement of April 12
Stallman opens his own statement by stating, “Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve felt like there was a thin curtain separating me from other people my age” and that he eventually realized that he himself didn’t understand “the subtle clues that other people respond.”
While potentially relatable, this sets the tone for RMS’ entire statement: For better or for worse, it’s about him. He acknowledges his own social shortcomings, saying, “Some have described me as ‘tone-deaf,’ and that’s fair.” Unfortunately, he further demonstrates this by stating during a discussion of his defense of the late Marvin Minsky that he “only knew Minsky remotely”—and continues in the same paragraph to state without apparent connection that “police brutality angers me.”
RMS immediately follows this startling paragraph by stating that he was “right to talk about the injustice against Minsky,” except for an admission of his own tone deafness and failure to recognize the context as a codicil.
It’s not hard to see someone in RMS who has no intention of harming anyone, but it’s also not hard to see someone who do inflicting damage repeatedly, while learning very little from it. RMS states, “I’m learning to recognize myself when I should [treat people better],” and that he’s improving over time – but it’s hard to find any evidence of improvement in his statement.
Neither the statement from the FSF nor from the RMS seems to significantly change anyone’s opinion of their relocation. The pro-RMS faction will likely continue to argue that RMS is just misunderstood and that it’s basically up to the rest of the world to work around it. The impact of these statements on those who disapprove of RMS recovery seems even less significant.
Bradley Kuhn, a former member of the FSF board and current policy officer for the Software Freedom Conservancy, sums up the “RMS has not changed” position well:
The real casualties in this whole situation have generally been ignored. We should all remember that the victims are Ms. Giuffre and other women trafficked by Epstein. Much work and research has gone into how to deal with victims of sex trafficking in a trauma-informed way, and how to treat victims of such horrible acts with respect.
These respective statements from the FSF and the RMS do not; there is no apology from RMS nor FSF to Ms. Giuffre, who is the person most harmed by RMS’s statements. The statement mentions punishment for bad actors, but makes no effort to help, apologize, and help the people who have been primarily harmed by RMS’s statements.