Social and political movements seek to spark new ideas and engender new practices as they leave others in the dustbin of history. The Free Software Movement, concerned with freeing software from the clutches of copyright and patent law, has mobilized countless individuals and groups worldwide in this cause for well over four decades. Free Software as an idea and movement is also tied up with Richard Stallman (RMS), the hacker and programmer who coined the idea in the 1980s and helped set the movement in motion—in part by chartering the Free Software Foundation and writing components of a freely available operating system.
Last year, RMS resigned from the Free Software Foundation Board after his commentary about convicted sex offender Jeffery Epstein was leaked to the public. Among other claims, he questioned whether “assault” was a fitting term to use to describe Epstein’s predatory behavior. In March 2021, RMS, featured in this video, announced his return to the FSF Board. Issuing no apology or reflection on how his views and other actions have caused harm to many and the movement at large, he instead proclaimed he would never resign again.
While the FSF Board approved his reinstatement, many cried out in protest. This letter seeking his and the Board’s resignation, signed by over 3,000 individuals and groups, shows how movements morph as they interchange with other cultural and political currents. Many free software projects grappled with issues of gender, race, hierarchy, and abuse over the last decade, bringing the movement to a different—and many would say a better—place. It’s a good reminder that movements must not only seek outward change but must be open to draw from other social movements, traditions, and critique to change from within. As the letter of protest put so well: “In order to realize the promise of everything software freedom makes possible, there must be radical change within the community. We believe in a present and a future where all technology empowers – not oppresses – people.”