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Despite backlash, Free Software Foundation reaffirms decision to reinstate Richard Stallman

“We decided to bring RMS back because we missed his wisdom,” the FSF board said Monday.

Despite backlash, Free Software Foundation reaffirms decision to reinstate Richard Stallman
Richard Stallman [Photo: Michael Debets/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images]

The Free Software Foundation has reaffirmed its decision to reinstate founder Richard Stallman to its board amid a backlash in the free software and open-source community. Meanwhile, Stallman issued a rambling apology that seems unlikely to satisfy critics who point to what they call decades of inappropriate behavior toward women.

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“We decided to bring RMS back because we missed his wisdom,” the FSF board said Monday. “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.”

Still, the board apologized for taking staff by surprise in reinstating Stallman, who is celebrated both as a legendary coder who created early versions of many technical tools still in use today, especially by programmers, and as an unrelenting advocate for software that people are allowed to freely modify and distribute. Stallman left the board in 2019 after widespread criticism of comments he made about the Jeffrey Epstein case and about allegations that the late AI and robotics pioneer Marvin Minsky had assaulted one of Epstein’s victims. At the time, a number of people came forward with stories of abusive and unpleasant behavior by Stallman, especially toward women, with some saying they even avoided walking by his office at MIT to avoid him.

Stallman was recently reinstated to the FSF board, leading to a petition signed by more than 3,000 people and representatives of high-profile organizations including Mozilla, Tor, and Creative Commons calling for the entire board to resign. The board has said it will amend its by-laws to make its selection process more transparent and review the membership of existing board members “in stages” once the process is finalized. It also agreed to add a member of its unionized workforce to the board, with that seat now filled by senior system administrator Ian Kelling.

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Stallman issued an apology at the same time that the board statement was issued. In it, he says that he has had lifelong difficulty handling social situations and that he has offended people, especially women.

“This was not a choice: I didn’t understand the problem enough to know which choices there were,” he said. “Sometimes I lost my temper because I didn’t have the social skills to avoid it. Some people could cope with this; others were hurt. I apologize to each of them. Please direct your criticism at me, not at the Free Software Foundation.”

Stallman also said he was “tone-deaf” in defending Minsky from what he sees as unjust accusations while not acknowledging the broader context of injustice that the Epstein case brought to light.

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“I would have done it for anyone,” he said. “Police brutality makes me angry, but when the cops lie about their victims afterwards, that false accusation is the ultimate outrage for me. I condemn racism and sexism, including their systemic forms, so when people say I don’t, that hurts too.”

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About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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