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Explaining the Events that Led to Richard Stallman's Resignation Part II - CSAIL Emails

Beware of the half truth. You may have gotten hold of the wrong half. —Author Unknown.

PART I   is important for background and facts.

A protest[1] was organized at MIT against the institution's involvement with sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. The announcement of the protest, sent to the CSAIL mailing list on September 10, 2019, triggered a contentious discussion over the description of Marvin Minsky as accused of assaulting one of Epstein’s victims.

We have compiled a PDF containing the conversation chain in a way that is clear and easy to read, following the chronological order as they were sent. We also replaced the redacted names of people with alphabetic letters, to distinguish different speakers and make direct exchanges more clear. Re-compiling was necessary because the PDF published by Vice[2] back in 2019 has three problems: 1) it's missing some important emails; 2) the emails are listed in reverse chronological order, which makes it difficult to follow; 3) they include irrelevant text that only adds noise and distracts, such as footers and re-quotes. However, we also provide a copy of the original PDF published by Vice.

We're presenting the email trail here very carefully so that people can see for themselves. We believe the email trail answers some pertinent questions:

  • Did Stallman defend Epstein? No.
  • Did Stallman excuse sexual assault? No.
  • Did Stallman advocate for or excuse predatory sex with minors? No.
  • Did Stallman credit and believe the victims? Yes.
  • Did Stallman clarify terms? Yes.
  • Did Stallman respectfully disagree? Yes.
  • Did Stallman highlight where we have facts and where we do not? Yes.

The email numbers and letters used below in place of names (i.e., “Poster A”) come from the PDF compiled by us.

Here's the relevant snippet from the announcement (extracted from Email #1 by Poster A in the chain):

[...] deceased AI “pioneer” Marvin Minsky (who is accused of assaulting
one of Epstein’s victims [2]), [...]


The use of inverted commas around the word “pioneer” suggests it was written under a strong emotional state, otherwise it's unreasonable to think that whatever wrong Minsky might have done is grounds to refute the undeniable fact that he was actually a pioneer in his field. It was probably this emotional strain that also led to describing his alleged misconduct as an “assault.” In fact, the cited article by The Verge never uses that word.

Richard Stallman is known for his obsession with correct terminology. Even though it was out of place in that context, he couldn't suppress his nature and did as he always does whenever he sees a word is being misused: he pointed it out. As someone who is committed to justice, he also spoke up against what he saw as the unfair treatment of a dead man he had known in his early days at the AI Lab. A dear professor, a mentor. The pain of seeing a dear person being attacked is a familiar feeling to many.

It was in this atmosphere filled with pain and affliction that he replied (emphasis added):

Email #2 by Richard Stallman #email2

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 [2])

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 accusation quoted is a clear example of inflation. The reference reports the claim that Minsky had sex with one of Epstein's harem. (See Let's presume that was true (I see no reason to disbelieve it).

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.

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.

  • Clearly, what Stallman is saying here is that the expression “sexual assault” is innacurate in this context.

    Stallman is known for chiming in whenever he sees a term is being used incorrectly, in his view. This case was no exception, with the added motive of seeing his friend being accused exaggeratedly. He also did it when he saw Epstein had been labeled as a “sex offender” according to law, and proposed to describe him as a “serial rapist” instead.

    Stallman's observation was completely on target. Epstein himself used the inaccurate term “sex offender” to diminish the gravity of his crimes.

    Nadine Strossen—feminist advocate of human rights, children’s rights, former ACLU president and lawyer agrees that the overuse of the term “sexual assault” minimizes the serious crimes: It [sexual assault] trivializes the serious infractions that are committed by people like Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein. So that is one point that he [Stallman] made that I think is very important that I strongly agree with. #not-sexual-assault

  • Stallman gives credit to Giuffre's declaration and takes it to mean she actually did have sex with Minsky, just it was not “sexual assault”:
    • Epstein was forcing Giuffre to offer sex to his friends, so it's reasonable to think that he was also forcing her to hide she was being coerced. Stallman argues that based on available testimony, we don't actually know what Minsky understood about the situation, facts that should be crucial to judging his behavior and holding him accountable.

      Stallman's words, “presented herself to him as entirely willing” were widely misquoted all over the web as if he had said “she was entirely willing.” The difference in meaning is obvious. Stallman in fact says the opposite, that he believes she was coerced by Epstein.

    • The announcement of the protest at MIT is in part based on an article by The Verge, but that article never mentions “sexual assault.”

Email #3 by Poster B

For the record, a witness denies this, saying that Minsky turned her down:

That's a reference to Gregory Benford's report.

Email #4 by Poster C

Giuffre was 17 at the time; this makes it _rape_ in the Virgin Islands.

The witness (who was not named as someone present by Giuffre) claims that the deposition never directly accuses Minsky of participating, based off a convoluted sentence by the New York Times. The Verge article includes a depostition snippet, which is not ambiguous at all: Giuffre directly says she was forced to have sex with Minsky.

Let's stop grasping at straws to defend our friends, and instead listen to the women who were harmed.

  • Actually, we still don't know if, when or where Giuffre had sex with Minsky. The suits were settled out of court, and nobody has sued Minsky's estate so far. As for the age, Giuffre was 18 in April 2002, although things could have happened before that. Again, we are missing key information, thus we should refrain from passing judgement based on passion rather than evidence.

  • It seems that Stallman did listen to the women. Referring to Giuffre's deposition, he assumes Giuffre had sex with Minsky; in Email #2 above he writes, Let's presume that was true (I see no reason to disbelieve it).

Email #6 by Poster E

On Wed, Sep 11, 2019 at 12:21:19PM +0000, [C] wrote:

:Let’s stop grasping at straws to defend our friends, and instead listen to the women who were harmed.

^ exactly that.

The legal presumption of innocence does not mean you presume the accuser is a liar.

This is an example of the distorting and inflating effects of the echoing chamber. The poster here echoes speaker C's presumption that Stallman is not listening to the victims, and inflates it to the point of asserting that Stallman presumes Giuffre is a liar. As we saw above, it's the opposite: Stallman actually gives credit to the victim when he writes, Let's presume that was true (I see no reason to disbelieve it)..

This message was a loud alarm that Stallman failed to hear. A passionate fortissimo passage that says, “We are overwhelmed with emotions here and not ready to engage in the analysis of facts.” He should have switched to empathy with the other players, or quit the orchestra on the spot. Instead, he continued playing to the rational tune.

Email #7 Richard Stallman's reply to Poster C #email7

> Giuffre was 17 at the time; this makes it ___rape___ in the Virgin Islands.

Does it really? 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.

I think the existence of a dispute about that supports my point that the term “sexual assault” is slippery, so we ought to use more concrete terms when accusing anyone.

> The Verge article includes the deposition snippet, which is not
> ambiguous at all: Giuffre directly says she was forced to have sex
> with Minsky.

I don't see any quotation from the depostion in the article, but it says, “Giuffre says she was directed to have sex with Minsky.” Given the circumstances, that implies she was coerced by Epstein into doing so.

The article I know of, and have a copy of, is island-court-records-unsealed.

Are you talking of some other Verge article? If so, would you like to tell me its URL?

> Let’s stop grasping at straws to defend our friends, and instead
> listen to the women who were harmed.

We can listen only to what is said to us.

All I know she said about Minsky is that Epstein directed her to have sex with Minsky. That does not say whether Minsky knew that she was coerced. It does not report what each said and did during their sexual encounter. We can imagine various scenarios.

We know that Giuffre was being coerced into sex -- by Epstein. She was being harmed. But the details do affect whether, and to what extent, Minsky was responsible for that.

Looking through the article again carefully, I found a link that reportedly points to the deposition itself. I visited that URL and got a blank window. It is on Google Drive, which demands running nonfree software in order to see it. See

Would you (not anyone else!) like to email me a copy of the part that pertains to Minsky? I say "not anyone else" to avoid getting 20 copies.

Poster C, as most people, falls into the trap of giving the legal system authority to dictate the moral principles of right and wrong. According to this view, if the alleged sexual encounter had happened in a jurisdiction with a lower age of consent[3] (e.g. Massachusetts 16, New York 17), then it might not have counted as “rape.”

Stallman's argument is that, from a moral perspective, jurisdiction and age are irrelevant. In other words, he argues that laws do not dictate morality. What makes it immoral is the fact that Giuffre was coerced, whatever her age and whatever the jurisdiction.

But, as we said, there is no room for rational thinking amid an environment of understandable anger and pain. In fact, Poster C's reading of Giuffre's deposition is blurred by emotions to the point of putting into Giuffre's mouth words she never said and affirm they are unambiguous. In reality, Giuffre doesn't say she was “forced to have sex with Minsky”, what she says is she was “directed” to have sex with him (and whether this actually happened, when or where, is still unknown.)

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Stalllman still trusts that dialogue is possible, and with complete candor he proceeds to ask for help to retrieve the original documents, not realizing that no, that won't happen. What he receives instead is a threat from an angry reader to leak the conversation to the press.

Email #8 by Poster F - The Threat (Emphasis added) #email8

Dr. Stallman - If we're debating the definitions of "rape" and "sexual assault," perhaps it's better to accept that this conversation isn't productive. When this email chain inevitably finds its way into the press, the seeming insensitivity of some will reflect poorly on the entire CSAIL community. Regardless of intent, this thread reads as "grasping at straws to defend our friends" around potential involvement with Epstein, and that isn't a reputation I would like attached to my CSAIL affiliation.

If we look at the dates, more than a threat it looks like an advance notice; the decision had been taken. Poster F sent this message on September 12. The day after, the conversation chain was already in the hands of Selam Jie Gano, who immediately started looking for ways to leak it to the press. The same day, September 13, she succeded to leak it to Vice and wrote the blog post calling for the removal of Stallman that triggered headlines such as

To be continued...

References and Notes

  1. They Knew: Speak-out against MIT-Epstein Scandal. (Archived)
  2. Email chain as published by Vice. (Archived)
  3. Statutory Rape. A Guide to State Laws and Reporting Requirements. (Archived)