On Recent Controversial Events Regarding the Free Software Foundation and Richard Stallman

Tuesday 15 October 2019 by Bradley M. Kuhn

The last 33 days have been unprecedentedly difficult for the software freedom community and for me personally. Folks have been emailing, phoning, texting, tagging me on social media (— the last of which has been funny, because all my social media accounts are placeholder accounts). But, just about everyone has urged me to comment on the serious issues that the software freedom community now faces. Until now, I have stayed silent regarding all these current topics: from Richard M. Stallman (RMS)'s public statements, to his resignation from the Free Software Foundation (FSF), to the Epstein scandal and its connection to MIT. I've also avoided generally commenting on software freedom organizational governance during this period. I did this for good reason, which is explained below. However, in this blog post, I now share my primary comments on the matters that seem to currently be of the utmost attention of the Open Source and Free Software communities.

I have been silent the last month because, until two days ago, I was an at-large member of FSF's Board of Directors, and a Voting Member of the FSF. As a member of FSF's two leadership bodies, I was abiding by a reasonable request from the FSF management and my duty to the organization. Specifically, the FSF asked that all communication during the crisis come directly from FSF officers and not from at-large directors and/or Voting Members. Furthermore, the FSF management asked all Directors and Voting Members to remain silent on this entire matter — even on issues only tangentially related to the current situation, and even when speaking in our own capacity (e.g., on our own blogs like this one). The FSF is an important organization, and I take any request from the FSF seriously — so I abided fully with their request.

The situation was further complicated because folks at my employer, Software Freedom Conservancy (where I also serve on the Board of Directors) had strong opinions about this matter as well. Fortunately, the FSF and Conservancy both had already created clear protocols for what I should do if ever there was a disagreement or divergence of views between Conservancy and FSF. I therefore was recused fully from the planning, drafting, and timing of Conservancy's statement on this matter. I thank my colleagues at the Conservancy for working so carefully to keep me entirely outside the loop on their statement and to diligently assure that it was straight-forward for me to manage any potential organizational disagreements. I also thank those at the FSF who outlined clear protocols (ahead of time, back in March 2019) in case a situation like this ever came up. I also know my colleagues at Conservancy care deeply, as I do, about the health and welfare of the FSF and its mission of fighting for universal software freedom for all. None of us want, nor have, any substantive disagreement over software freedom issues.

I take very seriously my duty to the various organizations where I have (or have had) affiliations. More generally, I champion non-profit organizational transparency. Unfortunately, the current crisis left me in a quandary between the overarching goal of community transparency and abiding by FSF management's directives. Now that I've left the FSF Board of Directors, FSF's Voting Membership, and all my FSF volunteer roles (which ends my 22-year uninterrupted affiliation with the FSF), I can now comment on the substantive issues that face not just the FSF, but the Free Software community as a whole, while continuing to adhere to my past duty of acting in FSF's best interest. In other words, my affiliation with the FSF has come to an end for many good and useful reasons. The end to this affiliation allows me to speak directly about the core issues at the heart of the community's current crisis.

Firstly, all these events — from RMS' public comments on the MIT mailing list, to RMS' resignation from the FSF to RMS' discussions about the next steps for the GNU project — seem to many to have happened ridiculously quickly. But it wasn't actually fast at all. In fact, these events were culmination of issues that were slowly growing in concern to many people, including me.

For the last two years, I had been a loud internal voice in the FSF leadership regarding RMS' Free-Software-unrelated public statements; I felt strongly that it was in the best interest of the FSF to actively seek to limit such statements, and that it was my duty to FSF to speak out about this within the organization. Those who only learned of this story in the last month (understandably) believed Selam G.'s Medium post raised an entirely new issue. In fact, RMS' views and statements posted on stallman.org about sexual morality escalated for the worse over the last few years. When the escalation started, I still considered RMS both a friend and colleague, and I attempted to argue with him at length to convince him that some of his positions were harmful to sexual assault survivors and those who are sex-trafficked, and to the people who devote their lives in service to such individuals. More importantly to the FSF, I attempted to persuade RMS that launching a controversial campaign on sexual behavior and morality was counter to his and FSF's mission to advance software freedom, and told RMS that my duty as an FSF Director was to assure the best outcome for the FSF, which IMO didn't include having a leader who made such statements. Not only is human sexual behavior not a topic on which RMS has adequate academic expertise, but also his positions appear to ignore significant research and widely available information on the subject. Many of his comments, while occasionally politically intriguing, lack empathy for people who experienced trauma.

IMO, this is not and has never been a Free Speech issue. I do believe freedom of speech links directly to software freedom: indeed, I see the freedom to publish software under Free licenses as almost a corollary to the freedom of speech. However, we do not need to follow leadership from those whose views we fundamentally disagree. Moreover, organizations need not and should not elevate spokespeople and leaders who speak regularly on unrelated issues that organizations find do not advance their mission, and/or that alienate important constituents. I, like many other software freedom leaders, curtail my public comments on issues not related to FOSS. (Indeed, I would not even be commenting on this issue if it had not become a central issue of concern to the software freedom community.) Leaders have power, and they must exercise the power of their words with restraint, not with impunity.

RMS has consistently argued that there was a campaign of “prudish intimidation” — seeking to keep him quiet about his views on sexuality. After years of conversing with RMS about how his non-software-freedom views were a distraction, an indulgence, and downright problematic, his general response was to make even more public comments of this nature. The issue is not about RMS' right to say what he believes, nor is it even about whether or not you agree or disagree with RMS' statements. The question is whether an organization should have a designated leader who is on a sustained, public campaign advocating about an unrelated issue that many consider controversial. It really doesn't matter what your view about the controversial issue is; a leader who refuses to stop talking loudly about unrelated issues eventually creates an untenable distraction from the radical activism you're actively trying to advance. The message of universal software freedom is a radical cause; it's basically impossible for one individual to effectively push forward two unrelated controversial agendas at once. In short, the radical message of software freedom became overshadowed by RMS' radical views about sexual morality.

And here is where I say the thing that may infuriate many but it's what I believe: I think RMS took a useful step by resigning some of his leadership roles at the FSF. I thank RMS for taking that step, and I wish the FSF Directors well in their efforts to assure that the FSF becomes a welcoming organization to all who care about universal software freedom. The FSF's mission is essential to our technological future, and we should all support that mission. I care deeply about that mission myself and have worked and will continue to work in our community in the best interest of the mission.

I'm admittedly struggling to find a way to work again with RMS, given his views on sexual morality and his behaviors stemming from those views. I explicitly do not agree with this “(re-)definition” of sexual assault. Furthermore, I believe uninformed statements about sexual assault are irresponsible and cause harm to victims. #MeToo is not a “frenzy”; it is a global movement by individuals who have been harmed seeking to hold both bad actors and society-at-large accountable for ignoring systemic wrongs. Nevertheless, I still am proud of the essay that I co-wrote with RMS and still find many of RMS' other essays compelling, important, and relevant.

I want the FSF to succeed in its mission and enter a new era of accomplishments. I've spent the last 22 years, without a break, dedicating substantial time, effort, care and loyalty to the various FSF roles that I've had: including employee, volunteer, at-large Director, and Voting Member. Even though my duties to the FSF are done, and my relationship with the FSF is no longer formal, I still think the FSF is a valuable institution worth helping and saving, specifically because the FSF was founded for a mission that I deeply support. And we should also realize that RMS — a human being (who is flawed like the rest of us) — invented that mission.

As culture change becomes more rapid, I hope we can find reasonable nuance and moderation on our complex analysis about people and their disparate views, while we also hold individuals fully accountable for their actions. That's the difficulty we face in the post-post-modern culture of the early twenty-first century. Most importantly, I believe we must find a way to stand firm for software freedom while also making a safe environment for victims of sexual assault, sexual abuse, gaslighting, and other deplorable actions.

Posted on Tuesday 15 October 2019 at 09:11 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

Submit comments on this post to <bkuhn@ebb.org>.



Creative Commons License This website and all documents on it are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License .


#include <std/disclaimer.h>
use Standard::Disclaimer;
from standard import disclaimer
SELECT full_text FROM standard WHERE type = 'disclaimer';

Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own ebb.org with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

— bkuhn


ebb is a service mark of Bradley M. Kuhn.

Bradley M. Kuhn <bkuhn@ebb.org>