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Free Software Pioneer Quits MIT Over His Comments On Epstein Sex Trafficking Case

Richard Stallman, pictured in 2015, resigned from his posts as president of the Free Software Foundation and visiting scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
Pacific Press
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Richard Stallman, pictured in 2015, resigned from his posts as president of the Free Software Foundation and visiting scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Free software pioneer and renowned computer scientist Richard Stallman resigned from his post at MIT following recent comments about one of Jeffrey Epstein's sex trafficking accusers. He also resigned as president of the Free Software Foundation.

On Monday, Stallman, a visiting scientist at the university's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, posted a brief message on his blog announcingthe decision. "To the MIT community, I am resigning effective immediately from my position in CSAIL at MIT," he wrote.

"I am doing this due to pressure on MIT and me over a series of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations," Stallman added.

In a statement, John Sullivan, executive director of the Free Software Foundation, noted that the board will begin an immediate search for a new president.

Despite Stallman's professional accolades — he has received several honorary doctorates, was given the MacArthur "Genius Grant" in 1990 and is considered the godfather of the free software or open source movement (though he detests the latter moniker) — he has long cut a divisive figure for his personal views.

The controversy swirling around him now stems from a series of emails from a CSAIL group email list — made public by Selam Jie Gano — in which Stallman said that a 17-year-old girl who allegedly was instructed by Epstein to have sex with AI pioneer Marvin Minsky likely seemed "entirely willing" to engage in the illegal act. He also argued it is unfair to call such an incident "sexual assault."

Minsky, now deceased, was an MIT computer scientist accused of sexually assaulting Virginia Giuffre, who has said she was trafficked by Epstein.

In the thread, Stallman wrote, "We can imagine many scenarios, but the most plausible scenario is that she presented herself to him as entirely willing."

When a person on the email chain noted that the girl was 17 at the time, and that sex with a minor is statutory rape, Stallman replied, "I think it is 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."

The remarks drew ire from computer scientists within and outside of the university, and they inspired some to dig through Stallman's past blog posts. That effort has since unearthed other writings in which he advocated for the legalization of pedophilia and child pornography.

The Daily Beast first reported that Stallman wrote in 2003, "I think that everyone age 14 or above ought to take part in sex, though not indiscriminately. (Some people are ready earlier.)" In 2006, he wrote, "I am skeptical of the claim that voluntarily [sic] pedophilia harms children. The arguments that it causes harm seem to be based on cases which aren't voluntary, which are then stretched by parents who are horrified by the idea that their little baby is maturing."

Stallman's departure follows that of Joichi Ito, who stepped down as MIT's Media Lab director earlier this month. He also left amid scandal after an article by The New Yorker revealed the lab tried to conceal its financial relationship with Epstein.

The disgraced financier, who killed himself in a jail cell while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges, had been involved in landing gifts from others of about $7.5 million.

In a letter to the MIT community, CSAIL Director Daniela Rus said the university will work with Stallman "to come up with a transition plan."

"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," Rus wrote.

"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. This includes ongoing conversations about the future of the CSAIL-related listserv."

Stallman did not immediately reply to NPR's requests for comment.

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Corrected: September 17, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Virginia Giuffre as Guiffre.
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.