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Richard Stallman resigns from MIT after comments about Jeffrey Epstein

Richard M. Stallman, shown in a 1999 file photo. The Boston Globe

Richard M. Stallman, an MIT computer scientist, a pioneer in the free software movement, and the winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant, has resigned from MIT and his foundation after he posted comments about a victim of Jeffrey Epstein who testified she was coerced into having sex with a now-deceased MIT professor.

Stallman posted a short note about his resignation Monday on his personal homepage, where he has for many years written about a variety of issues, including Epstein and his views on pedophilia.

“To the MIT community, I am resigning effective immediately from my position in CSAIL at MIT. I am doing this due to pressure on MIT and me over a series of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations.”


CSAIL is the Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Stallman was a visiting scientist at the lab, said Adam Conner-Simons, a spokesman for CSAIL.

Professor Daniela Rus, the director of CSAIL, sent an e-mail to colleagues Monday night saying Stallman had submitted his resignation, “effective immediately.”

“In the weeks ahead, we will work with him to come up with a transition plan,” she wrote. “We thank him for his technical contributions to the lab, to the free-software movement, and to the wider computer-science community over the decades.”

In court documents released in August, Virginia Roberts Giuffre claimed that when she was a teenager, Epstein directed her to have sex with the late MIT professor Marvin Minsky. Minsky, who died in 2016, is considered a pioneer in artificial intelligence.

Stallman engaged in a dialogue about the allegations against Minsky on an internal CSAIL listserv; it was posted by Vice’s Motherboard website. During the dialogue, Stallman wrote that Giuffre was “coerced into sex — by Epstein” and Epstein harmed her in doing so. He also wrote that Minsky may not have known Epstein was forcing the teenager to have sex with him.


Stallman also wrote, “I think its morally absurd to define ‘rape’ in a way that depends on minor details such as which country it was in or whether the victim was 18 years old or 17.”

At another point in the discussion, Stallman wrote that he thought an “injustice” had been done to Minsky, who was described in some news accounts as having sexually assaulted Giuiffre.

“The injustice is in the word ‘assaulting.’ . . . The word ‘assaulting’ presumes that he applied force or violence, in some unspecified way, but the article itself says no such thing. Only that they had sex.”

He continued: “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. I’ve concluded from various examples of accusation inflation that it is absolutely wrong to use the term ‘sexual assault’ in an accusation. Whatever conduct you want to criticize, you should describe it with a specific term that avoids moral vagueness about the nature of the criticism.”

On his personal site, Stallman apologized for any harm his comments may have caused and said that media coverage “totally mischaracterised my statements.”

“Headlines say that I defended Epstein. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve called him a ‘serial rapist,’ and said he deserved to be imprisoned,’’ he wrote. “But many people now believe I defended him — and other inaccurate claims — and feel a real hurt because of what they believe I said. I’m sorry for that hurt. I wish I could have prevented the misunderstanding.”


Also this week, Stallman posted that he has changed his views on pedophilia, having written in 2006 that he did not believe children were psychologically harmed by having sex with adults.

“Many years ago I posted that I could not see anything wrong about sex between an adult and a child, if the child accepted it,’’ he wrote. “Through personal conversations in recent years, I’ve learned to understand how sex with a child can harm per psychologically. This changed my mind about the matter: I think adults should not do that. I am grateful for the conversations that enabled me to understand why.”

In her e-mail Monday night, Rus told colleagues she would consult with other leaders.

“Recent events have also prompted me and other senior leadership at the lab to focus on having a discussion on how we can improve the ways we respectfully work with one another in this community,” she wrote.

Stallman also resigned from the Free Software Foundation, which he founded in the 1980s to support developers who would allow users to use, study, copy, and improve upon their designs.

The foundation posted a note about his resignation Monday at 10:08 p.m.

“On September 16, 2019, Richard M. Stallman, founder and president of the Free Software Foundation, resigned as president and from its board of directors,’’ the post reads. “The board will be conducting a search for a new president, beginning immediately.”


Stallman was awarded a so-called genius grant by the MacArthur Foundation in 1990, when he was 37. He was selected for his work creating GNU software and the Free Software Foundation, according to the charity’s website.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney. John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.