AuthorLueders, Bill

In 1977, a few years after Erwin Knoll had moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to become editor of The Progressive, a volunteer host at WORT-FM, the local listener-sponsored community radio station, announced plans to interview, live on air, a spokesperson for the American Nazi Party.

On the day of the intended broadcast, a group of demonstrators broke into the station and smashed a window and some equipment, preventing the interview. Knoll headed over to WORT to discuss the incident on air; he would later recall, "I found myself facing a young man from one of the self-designated 'revolutionary' groups on campus, who said, "The only answer to Nazi speech is a lead pipe to the skull.'"

Knoll told the young man, and his radio audience, that "this was Nazi talk if ever I heard any."

Knoll would know. He was a survivor of the Holocaust, having fled his homeland in Austria as a young boy after the Nazis came to power. One of his first memories was watching a local synagogue burn to the ground. He saw the "Fur Juden Verboten" ("Jews Forbidden") signs go up in public places. Members of his family died in the camps. He understood as acutely as anyone the power that hate has to move people to do terrible things.

And yet, there was never a fiercer advocate for protecting all forms of speech, including hate speech, nor a firmer opponent of violence, than Erwin Knoll, the magazine's editor for more than two decades, until his death in 1994. This often put him at odds with many others on the left, who were willing, as most people are, to find some violence justified and some speech too awful to be tolerated, especially when it involves intolerance.

Yet Knoll's absolutist position has been integral to the mission of The Progressive throughout its 113-year history. This magazine's founder, Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette, gave a stunning speech in 1917 from the floor of the U.S. Senate titled "Free Speech in Wartime." He said that "if every preparation for war can be made the excuse for destroying free speech and a free press and the right of the people to assemble together for peaceful discussion, then we may well despair of ever again finding ourselves for a long period in a state of peace."

In my five years as editor of The Progressive, I always felt that I had no greater or more sacred trust than to be a defender of those unpopular absolutes: free speech and nonviolence. I think I did a middling job at it. During my tenure, the magazine, over the...

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