#Cancel We The Web?
Updated: Jun 4
This post is written by Hannah Wolfman-Jones but includes a response from civil-rights expert Nadine Strossen, former president of the ACLU.
Birth of a Movement
The origin of Richard Stallman and the free software ideas he developed is from a time before computers became an integral part of ordinary people’s lives, the 70s. Many decades before our cell phones tracked our every movement, before smart homes brought mass surveillance into our living rooms, the idea of computers as serious tools of oppression seemed patently absurd.
Stallman was different. He detested and feared users’ loss of control of computing. To combat what he viewed as an unacceptable loss of users’ fundamental freedoms in proprietary software, Stallman formulated and then stuck by free software principles. By the early 80s, Stallman had founded the free software movement and become one of its most prolific contributors through his programming of the GNU operating system, whose goal was to be entirely free/libre software. He campaigned and coded for free software unpaid while his computer-science peers of lesser talents made millions.
Stallman’s following grew as his dire, crazy-sounding rantings of the early 80s have largely come true. So much so that there is now an international Free Software Foundation, many related organizations dedicated to advancing variations on his ideas, as well as a myriad of online forums.
An Unlikely Icon
“Stallman… is a hard man to like. He is driven, often impatient. His anger can flare at friend as easily as foe. He is uncompromising and persistent; patient in both.”
Lawrence Lessig, Harvard Law Professor, democracy activist
I have had 3 lunches, 1 free software event, and 1 long car ride with Richard Stallman and can vouch for Lessig’s view. In that span of time he managed to confront and berate me countless times. He is by far the most disagreeable person I’ve ever met.
Richard Stallman has an often extreme bristliness about him and an intense propensity for confrontation, which can repel many. However, it is this same uncompromising nature that has led to his firm adherence to his principles. Even when his ideas were ridiculed, even when faced with piles of cash to be made in proprietary software, Stallman stayed on the side of software freedom. He has been preaching software freedom since nearly the origin of software and he adheres strictly to his own moral code. That is what has earned the respect and trust of so many concerned about digital liberties.
Once Stallman comes to a logical conclusion on an issue, he sticks by his views, does not matter the outside pressures. This could be his stance on neckties - symbols of corporate subservience, he won’t wear them. Or his stance on pronouns - "they” is always plural though he champions and frequently uses singular gender-neutral pronouns. Or his controversial views on age of consent laws, the term “First Nation,” prostitution, and other incredibly sensitive topics. Stallman will not, cannot keep a view - however unpopular - to himself.
It was September 2019, just a few months after the world had learned of the horrific sex trafficking operation run by influential billionaire Jeffrey Epstein. Revelation after revelation had come out of powerful people and institutions connections to Epstein. MIT was no exception. Epstein had donated $850,000 to MIT’s Media Lab, visited campus many times, and associated with several professors and administrators. Richard Stallman was not among the MIT professors with Epstein ties, and like all decent humans was appalled to learn of Epstein’s heinous crimes.
However, Marvin Minsky, an acclaimed AI pioneer at MIT who passed away in 2016, was an associate of Epstein having been a recipient of Epstein’s research grants. Minsky visited Epstein’s estate in the Virgin Islands where one of Epstein’s 17-year-old victims was “directed to have sex” with him. In response to this and the other revelations, a protest was organized at MIT and an invitation for it was sent to various MIT email lists. Stallman was on one of these and sent a reply-all response that included the following:
The announcement of the Friday event does an injustice to Marvin Minsky: “deceased AI ‘pioneer’ Marvin Minsky (who is accused of assaulting one of Epstein’s victims )” The injustice is in the word “assaulting”. The term “sexual assault” is so vague and slippery that it facilitates accusation inflation: taking claims that someone did X and leading people to think of it as Y, which is much worse than X... The word “assaulting” presumes that he applied force or violence, in some unspecified way, but the article itself says no such thing... 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…
The email thread made its way into the hands of Selam G., a young MIT alumni who was “shocked” by it’s contents. She acted quickly, emailing reporters, news sites, newspapers, radio stations. When none of them responded with what she felt was the warranted urgency, she turned to Medium and penned a post entitled: “Remove Richard Stallman and Everyone Else Horrible in Tech.” In the article, Selam G. falsely claimed Stallman said Epstein’s victim was “entirely willing” rather than under Epstein’s coercion to “present herself as entirely willing.”
Selam G.’s call resonated. The tenor on social media was much the same. Activists quickly found his reputation for asking women out and making jokes about “EMACS virgins." Within days after Selam G.’s medium post, #CancelStallman was trending. Others added various reasons and anecdotes to further justify the firing.
Activists quickly dug into Stallman’s past, unearthing objectionable views on his personal blog. In 2003 Stallman wrote: "I think that everyone age 14 or above ought to take part in sex, though not indiscriminately, some are ready earlier. It is unnatural for humans to abstain from sex past puberty, and while I wouldn't try to pressure anyone to participate, I certainly encourage everyone to do so." Then in 2011, he wrote: "'Child pornography' might be a photo of yourself or your lover that the two of you shared. It might be an image of a sexually mature teenager that any normal adult would find attractive. What's heinous about having such a photo?"
From there things quickly escalated. Many major outlets reported on the incident. Often with misrepresentations of Stallman’s words that were so egregious it was hard to believe such mistakes were honest, rather than intentional hit pieces.
Articles by Catherine Shu in Tech Crunch and Blake Montgomery in The Daily Beast claimed Stallman defended Epstein, a claim that was false - and pointed out as such - but still has not been retracted. Many other outlets and an untold number of self-appointed Twitter pundits repeated the entirely false claim that Stallman said Epstein’s victims were “entirely willing.”
For many, the conclusion was clear: Richard Stallman must be “cancelled.” Many failed to make any distinction between what Stallman had done, question age-of-consent laws, and an actual pedophile or child rapist. They took his questioning of the wisdom of the terms “First Nation” (“presumes that the concept of "nation" was applicable to all peoples in the Americas ever since the humans first migrated there”) and “People of Color” (“endorses a racist outlook towards humanity by treating "color" as a matter of essence, as if it were a substance a person is made of, rather than as the superficial detail it really is”) as proof of colonial apologia and racism.
Questioning whether or not Stallman’s statements constituted racism, pedophilia, abuse, misogyny, etc. was done at the hazard of the questioner. Often they would also be attacked. Likewise for questioning whether he should be fired.
Stallman resigned from MIT and the Free Software Foundation (which he founded in 1985) a week after sending the offending email. The move was applauded by many. For others it was a sad moment to see a visionary and uniquely ethical man smeared and cast aside.
For still others it didn’t go nearly far enough. All who were associated with Richard Stallman also had to go.
Sarah Mei then went through the board members involved one by one, digging into each of their histories, and tweeting what she viewed as fire-worthy infractions. The crimes included: “being super involved with Wikipedia,” retweeting a “hideous” New York Times editorial, and being friendly with famed democracy activist and law professor Lawrence Lessig. Publicly calling out each board member in turn with a clear implication: associate with a thought criminal and you too could be in jeopardy.
A Big Decision
As someone who had recently become an associate of thought-criminal Richard Stallman, I would be lying if I said this guilt-by-association didn’t give me pause. The idea of my name being smeared all over the internet by a mob of strangers is not particularly appealing. It’s the type of thing that makes one not want to speak up at all: a real chilling effect.
The task ahead of me was a difficult one. See, I had already recruited Stallman to be part of the We The Web L3C experiment in collaboration that is the book System Override. So now, like MIT and the Free Software Foundation I had to make a decision: do I keep him on the project or boot him?
Luckily, another co-author on the book has spent a lot of time pondering inclusion, women’s rights, children’s rights, and free speech. Her name is Nadine Strossen and her credentials run deep. She served as the first female President of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), America’s largest and oldest civil liberties nonprofit, from 1991 to 2008. When she stepped down as President, three Supreme Court Justices participated in her farewell luncheon (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, and David Souter). Strossen is a Professor Emeritus at New York Law School and currently an advisor to the EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center), FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), the ACLU, and Heterodox Academy. She is the author of the widely acclaimed books HATE: Why we should fight it with speech not censorship (2018) and Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women’s Rights (1995). She has far too many awards, publications, and prominent appearances to name.
I talked with her to explain the dilemma and get her thoughts.
Civil Rights Activist Nadine Strossen’s Response To #CancelStallman:
I find it so odd that the strong zeal for revenge and punishment if someone says anything that is perceived to be sexist or racist or discriminatory comes from liberals and progressives! There are so many violations [in cases like Stallman’s] of such fundamental principles to which progressives and liberals cling in general as to what is justice, what is fairness, what is due process.
One is proportionality: that the punishment should be proportional to the offense. Another one is restorative justice: that rather than retribution and punishment, we should seek to have the person constructively come to understand, repent, and make amends for an infraction. Liberals generally believe society to be too punitive, too harsh, not forgiving enough. They are certainly against the death penalty and other harsh punishments even for the most violent, the mass murderers. Progressives are right now advocating for the release of criminals, even murderers. To then have exactly the opposite attitude towards something that certainly is not committing physical violence against somebody, I don’t understand the double standard!
Another cardinal principle is we shouldn’t have any guilt by association! [To hold culpable] these board members who were affiliated with him and ostensibly didn’t do enough to punish him for things that he said - which by the way were completely separate from the Free Software Foundation - is multiplying the problems of unwarranted punishment. It extends the punishment where the argument for responsibility and culpability becomes thinner and thinner to the vanishing point! That is also going to have an enormous adverse impact on the freedom of association, which is an important right protected in the U.S. by the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court has upheld freedom of association in cases involving organizations that were at the time highly controversial. It started with NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, but we have a case that’s going to the Supreme Court right now regarding Black Lives Matter. The Supreme Court says even if one member of the group does commit a crime - in both of those cases physical violence and assault - that is not a justification for punishing other members of the group unless they specifically intended to participate in the particular punishable conduct.
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.
Even if I strongly disagree with a position or an idea, an expression of an idea, advocacy of an idea, and even if the vast majority of the public disagrees with the idea and finds it offensive, that is not a justification for suppressing the idea. And it’s not a justification for taking away the equal rights of the person who espouses that idea including the right to continue holding a tenured position or other prominent position for which that person is qualified.
But a number of the ideas for which Richard Stallman has been attacked and punished are ideas that I as a feminist advocate of human rights find completely correct and positive from the perspective of women’s equality and dignity! So for example, when he talks about the misuse and over use and flawed use of the term sexual assault, I completely agree with that critique! People are indiscriminantly using that term or synonyms to describe everything from the most appaulling violent abuse of helpless vulnerable victims (such as a rape of a minor) to any conduct or expression in the realm of gender or sexuality that they find unpleasant or disagreeable.
So we see the term sexual assault and sexual harrassment used for example, when a guy asks a woman out on a date and she doesn’t find that an appealing invitation. Maybe he used poor judgement in asking her out, maybe he didn’t, but in any case that is NOT sexual assault or harassment. To call it that is to really demean the huge horror and violence and predation that does exist when you are talking about violent sexual assault. 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.
Secondly and relatedly, [Richard Stallman] never said that he endorse child pornography, which by definition the United States Supreme Court has defined it multiple times is the sexual exploitation of an actual minor. Coerced, forced, sexual activity by that minor, with that minor that happens to be filmed or photographed. That is the definition of child pornography. He never defends that! What the point he makes, a very important one, which the U.S. Supreme Court has also made, is mainly that we overuse and distort the term child pornography to refer to any depiction of any minor in any context that is even vaguely sexual.
So some people have not only denounced as child pornography but prosecuted and jailed loving devoted parents who committed the crime of taking a nude or semi-nude picture of their own child in a bathtub or their own child in a bathing suit. Again it is the hysteria that has totally refused to draw an absolutely critical distinction between actual violence and abuse, which is criminal and should be criminal, to any potentially sexual depiction of a minor. And I say potentially because I think if you look at a picture a parent has taken of a child in a bathtub and you see that as sexual, then I’d say there’s something in your perspective that might be questioned or challenged! But don’t foist that upon the parent who is lovingly documenting their beloved child's life and activities without seeing anything sexual in that image.
This is a decision that involves line drawing. We tend to have this hysteria where once we hear terms like pedophilia of course you are going to condemn anything that could possibly have that label. Of course you would. But societies around the world throughout history various cultures and various religions and moral positions have disagreed about at what age do you respect the autonomy and individuality and freedom of choice of a young person around sexuality. And the U.S. Supreme Court held that in a case involving minors right to choose to have an abortion.
By the way, [contraception and abortion] is a realm of sexuality where liberals and progressives and feminists have been saying, “Yes! If you’re old enough to have sex. You should have the right to contraception and access to it. You should have the right to have an abortion. You shouldn’t have to consult with your parents and have their permission or a judge’s permission because you’re sufficiently mature!” And the Supreme Court sided in accord of that position. The U.S. Supreme Court said constitutional rights do not magically mature and spring into being only when someone happens to attain the state defined age of majority.
In other words the constitution doesn’t prevent anyone from exercising rights, including Rights and sexual freedoms, freedom of choice and autonomy at a certain age! And so you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say well we’re strongly in favor of minors having the right to decide what to do with their own bodies, to have an abortion - what is in some people’s minds murder - but we’re not going to trust them to decide to have sex with somewhat older than they are.
And I say somewhat older than they are because that’s something where the law has also been subject to change. On all issues of when you obtain the age of majority, states differ on that widely and they choose different ages for different activities. When you’re old enough to drive, to have sex with someone around your age, to have sex with someone much older than you. There is no magic objective answer to these questions. I think people need to take seriously the importance of sexual freedom and autonomy and that certainly includes women, feminists. They have to take seriously the question of respecting a young person’s autonomy in that area.
There have been famous cases of 18 year olds who have gone to prison because they had consensual sex with their girlfriends who were a couple of years younger. A lot of people would not consider that pedophilia and yet under some strict laws and some absolute definitions it is. Romeo and Juliet laws make an exception to pedophilia laws when there is only a relatively small age difference. But what is relatively small? So to me, especially when he says he is re-examining his position, Stallman is just thinking through the very serious debate of how to be protective and respectful of young people. He is not being disrespectful, much less wishing harm upon young people, which seems to be what his detractors think he’s doing.
I have chosen to keep Stallman as a writer for System Override: How Bitcoin, Blockchain, Free Speech & Free Tech Can Change Everything. I believe Stallman to be quite possibly the best person in the world for defining and explaining free software. I do not believe any of his infractions - which led to a firestorm of controversy and resignation from MIT and his own foundation - to be so grave as to warrant his removal from the book and project.
The paradox of Stallman is that while his pointedness and stubbornness leads many to dismiss him as a jerk, his stubbornness and confrontations are actually rooted in his life-long obsession with morality. Though you may disagree, there is ample reason to believe he has come to hold his views from a concerted, rigorous, good-faith effort to be a voice for good in the world.
Ironically, given the smears against him, one of Stallman's core tenets seems to be consent! He has dedicated decades to arguing for free software, which protects computer users from nonconsensual activities being done on their machines (amongst other things). There is plenty of evidence that Stallman consistently applies his values of consent and freedom to romance and other relations. I find the claims that he is an “abuser” and “predator” online particularly misguided.
This is my best attempt to do the right thing. To stand on principle, come what may.
According to the Atlantic, a full 80 percent of Americans believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country.” While today some smear the free speech movement as a “racist dog-whistle” or a “far-right talking point,” it turns out the numbers don’t fit that narrative. Turns out just about everyone thinks we need more free speech. This includes large pluralities of all races (e.g. 75% of African Americans, 87% of Hispanics) and all ages (e.g. 79% of Americans under age 24).
A 2017 poll of 2,300 U.S. adults, found that 71% Americans believe that political correctness has silenced important discussions our society needs to have and 58% of Americans believe the political climate prevents them from sharing their own political beliefs. And who can blame them? Stallman had to resign from the foundation he started in order to save it from a similar smear campaign. All over an email voicing a perspective shared by a world-renowned civil-rights lawyer and feminist. Voicing such a perspective was even decried as “abuse!” because it was so politically incorrect, but what happens if society gets “politically correct” wrong? And if we don’t allow the “politically incorrect” amongst us to speak, how will we ever know what stances considered “politically correct” are morally wrong?
So you be the judge, Dear Reader. Do We The Web deserve to be #cancelled too?
Footnotes:  Richard Stallman has a comedy routine poking fun at his own reputation as well as religion. In it, Stallman refers to himself as being "Saint iGNUcius of the Church of Emacs" and the "cult of the Virgin of Emacs," which refers to "anyone who has never known or used Emacs." Emacs is a text editing program Stallman wrote, so to "use" or "know" Emacs only involves physical contact with a keyboard or pointer device. See stallman.org/saint.html.