The influential Free Software Foundation defends the return of controversial programmer Richard Stallman to its board, but vocal critics aren't buying it

  • The Free Software Foundation doubled-down on its decision to reappoint Richard Stallman to its board.
  • Stallman issued a statement admitting that he had made people feel “uncomfortable” and has found ways to “get better” at social situations. 
  • Critics bashed the statements and say the FSF’s decision will drive talent out of open source. 
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In a statement on Monday, members of the Free Software Foundation doubled down on the decision to reappoint controversial programmer Richard Stallman to its board of directors.

Stallman founded the organization in 1985, but resigned in late 2019 following blowback to his comments related to late MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky — who had been accused of assaulting one of Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged victims – as well as accusations that his behavior even before those comments was offensive, particularly towards women.

Then, in March, Stallman announced he was returning to the board.

That news kicked off a firestorm in the open source world, with critics arguing that his reappointment implicitly condoned behavior that made people feel uncomfortable, which would ultimately drive women and marginalized groups away from the community. Developers wrote an open letter calling for his removal, which earned over 3,000 signatures, including from more than 60 organizations.

But the FSF board did not budge on its decision, which it said Monday was made “after several months of thorough discussion and thoughtful deliberation,” with the conclusion that Stallman’s inclusion would benefit the foundation: 

“We decided to bring RMS back because we missed his wisdom,” the FSF said in a statement. “His historical, legal, and technical acumen on free software is unrivaled.”

 The FSF added that Stallman had acknowledged that he made mistakes and “has sincere regrets,” particularly at how the situation has negatively impacted the foundation.

Stallman, meanwhile, posted his own statement, admitting that his actions previously made others (especially women) “uncomfortable,” which he attributed to his “difficultly in understanding social cues.” Stallman also wrote that his 2019 comments defending Minsky — in which he described one of Epstein’s alleged victims as likely appearing “entirely willing” to the late computer scientist — came from a place of wanting to defend a colleague from “unjust accusations.”

He added that he had found ways to “get better at these situations” and continued to learn from others how to treat people better.

That explanation didn’t cut it with some developers. 

“Stallman has a documented history of holding views about sex and women that are problematic at best, and outright dangerous at worst,” developer advocate at JFrog, Kat Cosgrove, told Insider. “One of the challenges faced by free software is misogyny, and to have Stallman back on the board tells every woman who might be interested that we’re not welcome.”

Josh Simmons, president of the influential Open Source Initiative, echoed that sentiment and advocated for other organizations to fill the FSF’s role:

“The voting members of the FSF have made it clear they are more concerned about catering to the whims of an abusive founder than in leading the movement for software freedom, user freedom, and digital autonomy,” he told Insider. “And yet, those issues are still absolutely critical. It’s time we build organizations and movements around principles, rather than personalities.”

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