The world of free software clashes over accusations against its “guru” Richard Stallman

Arturo Di Corinto
8 min readApr 12, 2021


Richard Stallman and Bruce Perens hearings in the Italian parliament (2007)

A letter signed by 50 organizations calls for the resignation of every position for the father of free software accused of being “misogynist, abilist and transphobic”. And this for having called “inflated” the accusations made against his friend Minsky involved in the Epstein affair. In defense of him, however, a petition was launched in 32 languages

by Arturo Di Corinto

There is a war going on in the world of free software. And the first to pay for it is its inventor, Richard Stallman. It all started again with a letter published on Github calling for his resignation from all positions, including those in the Free Software Foundation, for being “misogynist, abilist and transphobic” and for other behaviors and ideas defined “repugnant”. The letter was signed by about 50 organizations involved in the development and maintenance of both free and open source software. To put it into perspective, that’s what lies behind Linux, the Android operating system, the Libre Office package, and much of the technology that the digital world is sitting on creating thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of value through companies like Red Hat and MuleSoft.

Thus, this man has suddenly become a plague even for those who have joined his “church”, the church of Emacs and Saint Ignucius. The saint, “iGNUcius” it’s a linguistic joke of the guru to ironically celebrate the devotion to the Gnu system he conceived and from which the whole history of alternative software to the Microsoft monopoly has passed — free software and open source code -, freely reusable by anyone to innovate, making business, encourage collaboration between programmers. We are talking of Gnu / Linux, thanks to the merger of the Gnu operating system with the Linux kernel created by Linus Torvalds, of the Open Source Definition, born from his epic clash with Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens, of the General Public License developed with Eben Moglen, of the GFDL license choosen by Jimmy Wales for Wikipedia.

How could that happen? The globetrotter who 34 years ago created the Free Software Foundation and the free software movement, tireless and stubborn in telling the ethical and legal limits of proprietary software and companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google and company, is become the object, some say, of a real lynching by those who previously drank from its source. A clash that divides innocentists and guilty ones, with VIPs who fear to defend him publicly so as not to be associated with his faults, real or alleged, and thousands of fans who defend him online, with sword drawn, launching a support petition in 32 languages.

RMS in Rome

Stallman is not an easy person, those who have known him know it well. Like many convinced of the uniqueness of his mission,— like Linus Torvalds, like Bruce Perens, like Julian Assange — Richard Stallman has often manifested borderline social behaviors, which in Stallman’s case were expressed with the amazement and candor of children who say the right things at the wrong time, who ask the questions that should not be asked, who make explicit the taboos that make us blush. Behaviors that her mother, Alice Lippman, a New York Jew, a democratic activist, had understood were autistic since he was a child. And that have not changed over the years. Disastrous in interpersonal relationships, irascible, clumsy with women, refractory to compromise, Stallman now pays for his social inability with an ostracism that to many appears disproportionate in the accusations but in line with the dictates of the so-called cancel culture.

When the crusade against Stallman begins

In the fall of 2019 he had already resigned from both the MIT and the Free Software Foundation due to the unauthorized disclosure of some of his emails where he had made clarifications regarding the behavior of the deceased friend and teacher Marvin Minsky, pioneer of AI and partner of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who died in prison where he was accused of an endless series of sexual abuses. Stallman had spoken on the MIT mailing list of inflated allegations against Minsky which, misinterpreted, seemed to justify his meeting with a young 17-year-old invited by Epstein to have sex with him — a fact not yet proven — which he never wrote, but previously he had expressed himself in a calibrated way on the relationships between adults and minors (above a certain age completely legal in many countries, including Italy) and that was enough to cause the uproar. Subsequently Stallman further clarified his positions, which in the meantime had attracted fierce criticism, threats and antipathies. His defense was not worth much, claiming that Epstein was a “serial rapist” with no excuses and that relationships with minors can cause great suffering.

To make amends, after much pressure, Stallman had resigned from his leadership roles in the Free Software Foundation (FSF) until the surprise announcement, a few days ago, that he was back on the board of directors infuriating some organizations in the free and open source world that, by dissociating from him, try to curb the buriana. In fact, the FSF itself has not yet officially announced the news, even though its site lists RMS as a member of the FSF’s board of directors. From the comments of the board members, it appears that RMS was elected only by the directors and not by the other voting members.

For and against Richard Stallman

While waiting for the dynamics and timing of this decision to be clarified, many realities that would not exist without his first pioneering and then leadership role have turned their backs on him. The Tor project, the Mozilla Foundation, RedHat and even the Electronic Frontier Foundation have taken a stand against Stallman. On the contrary, many women who have often dismissed his awkward ways and his nuance-free language with a smile, they, individual intellectuals, feminists and free software fans have come out in defense of him.

Renata Avila, scholar, feminist and founder of an association for “inclusive algorithms”, reminds that the campaign against Stallman manifests the bad conscience of those who attack him: “What Richard shows with his lifestyle and about which he speaks to aloud — unfiltered — are the compromises that others are making, using, nurturing and promoting a technology that is actually harmful to basic human rights and people’s dignity. “

In an interview with Hannah Wolfman-Jones, Professor Nadine Strossen, former director of the American Association for Civil Liberties instead stated: “Now, let’s assume for the sake of argument, Stallman had an attitude that was objectively described as discriminatory on the basis on race and gender (and by the way I have seen nothing to indicate that), that he’s an unrepentant misogynist, who really believes women are inferior. We are not going to correct those ideas, to enlighten him towards rejecting them and deciding to treat women as equals through a punitive approach! The only approach that could possibly work is an educational one! Engaging in speech, dialogue, discussion and leading him to re-examine his own ideas“.

The academician, addressing the liberals and progressives of the cancel culture indirectly, said that: “People use the term sexual assault/ sexual harassment to refer to any comment about gender or sexuality issues that they disagree with or a joke that might not be in the best taste, again is that to be commended? No! But to condemn it and equate it with a violent sexual assault again is really denying and demeaning the actual suffering that people who are victims of sexual assault endure. It trivializes the serious infractions that are committed by people like Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein. So that is one point that he made that I think is very important that I strongly agree with “.

According to the Italian lawyer Marco Ciurcina: “In the letter against RMS, the facts are presented in such a way as to induce a percentage of readers to believe that RMS has done things that it has not done and by offering a distorted, partial and unjust image: this constitutes a violation of the dignity of RMS as a person and damages its personal identity, reputation and image “.

But beyond the damage there is insult: Microsoft’s Github platform must be used to sign Stallman’s resignation request, and many organizations that have taken a stand against him receive funding from Google and other “data predators” like them, defines Renata Avila.

The machismo of nerds, #MeToo and Cancel Culture

But a shadow remains. An Italian professor, 40 years ago visiting MIT as a student, said in recent days that “she was groped by him in the elevator”. According to the Pisan professor Giuseppe Attardi, who at the time was a visiting professor at MIT, “there was a rumor that he ‘tried’ with the girls in the laboratory who avoided going alone in the lift with him, but nothing more”. However, these facts are not part of the current crusade against Stallman and, as Marco Ciurcina says, “quoting phrases and narrating facts that are perhaps very ancient without providing a context, one can go very far from the truth”.

In the 80s the #MeToo was not born and sexual liberation was breathed even in academic circles where the problem was rather represented by male chauvinism in professional relationships as argued by a report on sexism in the laboratory that some graduate students and researchers of the Computer Science & Artificial MIT’s Intelligence Lab compiled in February 1983.

Richard Stallman and Bruce Perens visiting “Il Manifesto” (Rome, 2007)

The one against Stallman is not the first major campaign of attack against a consummate person via the Internet worldwide. Previously it had touched other leading exponents of the world of free knowledge, such as Joi Ito (former director of the MIT Media Lab), Lawrence Lessig (founder by Creative Commons) and Julian Assange. Yet Maria Rosaria Lo Muzio, secretary of the Italian Pirate Party, considers it a marginal affair if she did not have to deal with the novelty of a technology, the network, which allows people’s reputations to be destroyed with great speed and ease. “The problem — says Lo Muzio — is the relationship between men and women, a conflictual relationship where women are too often subordinated. The thing that embitters me is that a campaign is set up on the network to defend or attack Stallman without ever raising the issue of women’s rights which, even in the digital world, is made up of continuous violence “.

“Stallman’s sexist and transphobic statements are deplorable, but they are nothing new in a ‘nerdy’ environment of programmers and coders that is traditionally male-dominated, predominantly white and Western,” says Donatella Della Ratta, a professor of communications at John Cabot University, Rome. Stallman has always been an ambiguous and rather autistic character, irreverent and egocentric “. And he continues:” His Wikipedia page recalls that he is ‘an atheist of Jewish origin’ and anti-natalist, but this must not make us forget the fundamental contribution that Stallman gave. He was among the first to see digital rights as human rights, to affirm that software production must be viewed as a matter of free expression, not ownership. Removing RMS does not eliminate the chauvinism and westernism of the coders community — which should make a serious reflection as a community rather than aiming at the media pillory of individuals — but ruthlessly destroys the last remnants of the uncomfortable culture of free software, crushed by corporate giants GAFAM and the blind hatred of cancel culture “.

NOTE: This article has been published in italiana for the italian newspaper La Repubblica on April 2, 2021 and translated by Google translation:



Arturo Di Corinto

Teacher, journalist, hacktivist. Privacy advocate, copyright critic, free software fan, cybersecurity curious.