Less than a week ago, Richard Stallman was ejected from his positions as a Visiting Scientist at MIT and as the president of the Free Software Foundation. Stallman had been associated with MIT, and its Artificial Intelligence Lab, for forty-eight years. Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation in 1985 and led it since its inception. His accomplishments, which are legion, will not be described here, as they mattered not at all to the institutions that disposed of him or to the writer whose article precipitated that disposal. Frankly, they are not important to this essay either.
What happened? This much we know. On September 12, 2019, Selam G. published this article on Medium. On Friday, September 13th, Vice published this article, The same day, the Daliy Beast published this. On Monday, September 16th, Stallman was gone: his resignation from MIT is here; and the brief statement from FSF is here.
Stallman, as Selam G. described, had defended his deceased colleague and friend, Marvin Minsky, from accusations of sexual assault that had been leveled against him following the recent revelations about Jeffrey Epstein. Stallman had posited a defense of Minsky on an internal MIT listserv that Selam G. quotes at length and which I will quote in significant part here: “We can imagine many scenarios, but the most plausible scenario is that she presented herself to him as entirely willing. Assuming she was being coerced by Epstein, he would have had every reason to tell her to conceal that from most of his associates.” This partial defense of Minsky, against only the most serious allegation, viz., that he had not known the woman he was having sex with had been coerced, was too much, far too much for Selam G.
As she writes in her Medium article, “I was shocked. I continued talking to my friend, a female graduate student in CSAIL, about everything, trying to get the full email thread (I wasn’t on the mailing list). I even started emailing reporters — local and national, news sites, newspapers, radio stations. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. During my 45-minute drive home, when I normally listen to podcasts or music, I just sat in complete silence.”
Given the topicality of the piece (which has since been read over 180,000 times), it is no surprise that the reporters “local and national” that she contacted responded. Vice ran a story drawing from her piece the next day, adopting and reinforcing its tone of outrage: the headline read “Famed Computer Scientist Richard Stallman Described Epstein Victims As ‘Entirely Willing’” This headline, is of course a gross distortion of what Stallman had actually said, quoted at length in Selam G.’s post and above. The headline (and the Vice article as a whole) depict Stallman describing all of Epstein’s victims as “entirely willing”, which is doubly false. Stallman described one woman on one occasion; Stallman described that woman as presenting herself as “entirely willing” not that she was so in fact.
We can, however, only speculate about the reasons that MIT and FSF acted the way that they did. There are some reasons that are easily ruled out. Neither MIT nor FSF forced Stallman out on the basis of a neutral investigation of a third party into the effect of his words or conduct on the well-being of people at MIT or FSF, over the many decades that Stallman had been associated with them. We know there was no investigation; there was no time for one.
Stallman was removed because he defended Minsky. Stallman was making the suggestion that Marvin Minsky may not have been as entirely guilty as had been depicted. There is a word for this type of conduct, skepticism. MIT’s mission statement says it is “committed to generating, disseminating, and preserving knowledge” and “dedicated to providing its students with an education that combines rigorous academic study and the excitement of discovery[.]”
Clearly not. An institution that dispenses with one of its most prominent scholars for being skeptical, even about a highly charged topic, is not an institution committed to rigorous discussion.
Now, the response may be, as many have asserted in the aftermath of Stallman’s termination “well, wasn’t Stallman a terrible man who creeped out many women and said weird things about child pornography?” And all of those things may well be true.
But the first answer to that has to be, but that wasn’t why he was fired. Selam G. herself who has now published an “Appendix A” lists as its very first point justifying the course of action promoted in her previous article, i.e. that MIT “Remove Richard Stallman” : “1. Richard Stallman has problematic opinions.” There doesn’t seem to be much question about the motive here.
More importantly, however, if Stallman’s history of offensive remarks or conduct would have justified his termination, then it is important that MIT and FSF not just say but also show that. Proof matters. Impartial judgment matters. Neutral factfinders matter. Process gives stakeholders confidence in results, confidence, for example, that making a good-faith, fact-based argument will not lead to summary termination, that a single skeptical statement will not end a career. Of course, with regards to Stallman, there is no second chance for the institutions involved. No matter what MIT or FSF chose to do now with regards to him, restore or rebuke, those actions would have no credibility.
The goals Selam G. seeks to advance are good ones. Institutions like MIT need to closely consider their past and present treatment of women. People at those institutions, and perhaps even Stallman himself, need to have their worst impulses checked, or possibly even be removed altogether. But trial by defenestration, viz., throwing someone out of a window and stating “We knew he was guilty because he hit the ground.” is not an answer. Firing people for expressing entirely defensible skepticism is not the answer. Taking time, affording people an opportunity to defend themselves, engaging with the process. Those are answers.