You may have seen lots of headlines, tweets, and comments recently about Richard Stallman’s unexpected return to the board of the Free Software Foundation (FSF). And, if you’re new to free and open source software, you may be wondering why the announcement and subsequent statement from the FSF caused such an uproar within the community. To understand that, some context about Stallman’s role in free software, the GNU project, and the FSF is necessary.
To help provide this context, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, who has covered FOSS from the outset, has an informative series of articles outlining the train of events, interrelated issues, and various viewpoints.
For example, Vaughan-Nichols explains here that, back in 2019, when Stallman (also known as RMS) originally resigned from the FSF, he was never really out of the picture, and he notes the overlapping relationship between FSF and GNU, as the former was originally created to support the latter:
Since RMS headed both the FSF and the GNU Project, this [his resignation] left confusion in its wake. The FSF acknowledged as much at the time: "The relationship between the FSF and GNU has been fluid … GNU decision-making has largely been in the hands of GNU leadership. Since RMS resigned as president of the FSF, but not as head of GNU ('Chief GNUisance'), the FSF is now working with GNU leadership on a shared understanding of the relationship for the future.”
Vaughan-Nichols also acknowledges Stallman’s original influential role in developing widely used software tools, including the GNU debugger, the GRUB bootloader, the GNU C Compiler (GCC), and the GNU General Public License (GPL). However, these efforts date back many years now, and Stallman’s more recent activities in advocating for Free Software (he does not like the term open source) are not viewed as positively. Jennifer Riggins cites examples of Stallman’s troubling behavior in this article at The New Stack.
As Vaughan-Nichols writes, “some top movers and shakers of today's open source software world are not happy.”
VM (Vicky) Brasseur, an award-winning free/open-source advocate and corporate strategist, said, "A little over a year ago I finally joined @fsf". They had finally taken action against RMS, a man who has not only been demonstrably toxic himself but is also a role model of toxicity in #FreeSoftware. RMS was holding FSF and Free Software back. Despite that well-known toxicity, FSF announced on Twitter that RMS is returning to its board of directors. Their one step forward in September 2019 converted to two large steps back to the Free Software dark ages."
Additionally, he quotes Matthew Garrett, a well-known Linux kernel developer and former FSF board member, who tweeted, "The idea that someone who does enough "good work" earns a pass for inappropriate behavior is pervasive, and fosters environments where abusers can prosper. People who hold this belief shouldn't be involved in running organizations."
Following the FSF’s announcement, many organizations, including Red Hat, Outreachy, and Free Software Foundation Europe, distanced themselves from the FSF, several FSF board members resigned, and open source leaders wrote an open letter calling for the “entire Board of the FSF to step down and for RMS to be removed from all leadership positions.”
Since then, however, the FSF has doubled down on the decision to reinstate Stallman and support his personal philosophy, and Stallman himself has issued what Vaughan-Nichols describes as “a defensive non-apology apology for the words and actions that led to his resignation from the FSF.”
Stallman seems intent on holding an FSF leadership role, Vaughan-Nichols notes. “Unfortunately for him, this very effort has caused many people to see him as more of an enemy to the movement he founded than as its heroic founder.” And, unfortunately for the FSF, they are now seen as inextricably associated with Stallman and his actions.