I was shocked to learn that Richard Stallman will be returning to the Free Software Foundation board of directors. Stallman resigned as president of the FSF and from his position at MIT in 2019 after making offensive profoundly misinformed statements about victims of sexual trafficking and abuse. His inexcusable remarks were the triggering incident, but it should have happened years before.
If you are not familiar with Stallman and his long history of creating a hostile environment for women, I encourage you to read Selam Jie Gano’s long and courageous post detailing the testimony of those who were forced to deal with it and Sage Sharp’s Twitter thread with receipts. It wasn’t an open secret in tech, because it wasn’t even secret. Even as a junior programmer thousands of miles away and twenty years ago, I knew women who had been forced to deal with his clearly unwelcome advances, and men who shared techniques for keeping others safe from him. (According to rumor, ferns were particularly effective at warding him off, like a creepster crucifix.)
Some communities have a missing stair; Stallman was an open elevator shaft with a crocodile pit at the bottom. Usually when something is this flagrantly broken for so long, the building itself has structural problems. So it is in the free software community. Since its creation, it has been disproportionately and often overwhelmingly white and male. It has had a combative culture with hidden toxic power dynamics. And it has repeatedly given known harassers and abusers a home, making it a notoriously inhumane environment, particularly for women.
When Stallman resigned, I thought it might be the beginning of an important time of reckoning for the free software movement. I was heartened that the FSF appeared ready to continue its mission to promote user freedom. It was larger than its founder, and could carry on without him. And I hoped that this would be followed by the removal of other toxic figures from positions of leadership and influence, by a genuine commitment to listening to those they had harmed, and by a new flourishing of diversity in free software.
Apparently not. Stallman’s announcement shows that the FSF as an organiation has learned nothing from #metoo, and has squandered the opportunity for critical reflection his resignation provided. There are people of conscience who work at FSF, and thousands more around the world who have contributed their efforts to its projects over the years. It has been a privilege for me to learn from and be inspired by free software advocates and volunteers who take the vision of software freedom seriously, and who are committed to making it a meaningful reality for everyone worldwide, not just for an insular group of privileged white men with careers in computing. Reinstating Richard Stallman is a slap in the face to them and a betrayal of the trust they have extended. I am deeply sorry for them all.
I have been an FSF donor for years, but I will make no further donations or have any further involvement with the FSF in any form while Richard Stallman retains any association with it. Instead, I will support other organizations that better understand the vision of equality and inclusion that free software represents, and are committed to that vision in everything they do.
Richard Stallman has the same freedoms in respect of free software that anyone else does. He can run it for any purpose. He can study how it works, and modify it however he wants. He can redistribute copies to anyone. And he can distribute copies of his modified versions to anyone, along with the corresponding source code. Let that be enough. As a person, he deserves nothing less. But after what he has done, he deserves not one iota more.