The Free Software Foundation (FSF) on Monday apologized for mishandling the announcement last month that founder Richard Stallman, or RMS, had been reelected to its board of directors – and published a statement from RMS both justifying his behavior and apologizing for it.
“FSF staff should have been informed and consulted first,” the FSF said. “The announcement by RMS at LibrePlanet was a complete surprise to staff, all those who worked so hard to organize a great event, to LibrePlanet speakers and to the exhibitors. We had hoped for a more inclusive and thoughtful process and we apologize that this did not occur.”
The foundation’s director, deputy director, and chief technology officer walked away away from the organization as a result of Stallman’s surprise return, we understand from conversations with FSF staff.
The FSF also defended its decision to restore RMS to its board, a year and a half after controversial remarks and allegations about past behavior led him to resign.
RMS, the organization said this week, “has a deep sensitivity to the ways that technologies can contribute to both the enhancement and the diminution of basic human rights,” and it suggested he is essential to its mission, even as it acknowledged that “his personal style remains troubling for some.”
RMS, the FSF said, regrets “how anger toward him personally has negatively impacted the reputation and mission of FSF.” And the organization published a link to Stallman’s apology of sorts.
Stallman explains his behavior by suggesting that he’s neurologically atypical, consistent with past self-characterization as borderline autistic. He says he grew up not understanding people’s social cues and as a result his behavior prompted negative reactions.
I sometimes made others uncomfortable or even offended them – especially women
“Tending to be direct and honest with my thoughts, I sometimes made others uncomfortable or even offended them – especially women,” he said. “This was not a choice: I didn’t understand the problem enough to know which choices there were.”
His temper, too, attributes to his lack of social skills and urges people to focus their anger at him rather than the organization he founded. “Some people could cope with this; others were hurt,” he said. “I apologize to each of them. Please direct your criticism at me, not at the Free Software Foundation.”
While acknowledging that he is tone-deaf to social cues, RMS nonetheless stands by his defense of late MIT professor Marvin Minsky after someone on a mailing list argued that the AI pioneer, who had ties to financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, was as guilty as Epstein. As Stallman sees it, Minsky was unjustly accused.
“It was right for me to talk about the injustice to Minsky, but it was tone-deaf that I didn’t acknowledge as context the injustice that Epstein did to women or the pain that caused,” he said.
It appears these statements from the FSF and RMS will only reignite the smoldering controversy in the software development community about acceptable speech and behavior, and the extent to which disciplinary action can be decided in the court of social media outrage.
The members of the openSUSE board responded by reiterating a decision announced earlier this month that it will no longer sponsor organizations and events affiliated with the FSF.
Grady Booch, IBM Fellow and chief scientist for software engineering, scoffed at the FSF’s claims about its dedication to fighting for software freedom. “Saying it does not make it so,” he said via Twitter. “If you are so dependent on RMS, then you have a cult, not an enduring, vibrant organization.”
The 3,000+ open-source community signatories who called for the removal of the entire FSF board in an open letter reiterated that demand on Monday.
The 6,000+ who supported Stallman in a counter-open-letter, curiously many from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, have yet to respond in unison.
But Libreboot project leader Leah Rowe, a signatory of that latter letter who has argued the campaign against RMS is motivated by corporate desire to destroy free software, celebrated the FSF announcement with a tweet. “I hope we can all move on past the divisive, hateful politics of recent weeks,” she said. ®