RIP: Jerry Springer, old school liberal, stood strong for free speech

The former Democratic mayor held true to an all-American principle that’s harder to find today.

The host of the most tabloid talk show in American history, Jerry Springer, passed away on Thursday at the age of 79. No topic or guest was too lowbrow or tacky for his popular program, where paternity tests, couples’ breakups, makeups, security guard fights and worse were regular fare for over two decades.

Springer had also worked for Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. He would later become the Democratic mayor of Cincinnati in 1977.

He was also a liberal—a real one. That might sound like a strange thing to note of a member of the Democratic Party. But in 2023 where outright censorship and violating the First Amendment is advocated for by prominent Democratic leaders, it is noteworthy.

Springer was of a different generation. One in which what the American Civil Liberties Union stood for was considered the essence of American liberalism (for the younger generations, that used to be a stringent defense of free speech).

On a local news station for which Springer provided commentary in the early 1990s, the former mayor detailed his commitment to free speech

“Back when I was mayor of Cincinnati, the neo-Nazis, knowing I was Jewish, figuring this would be a good test, applied for a parade permit,” Springer said. “They wanted to march through our downtown on a Saturday afternoon.”

“Well, I didn’t know what to do,” he said.

For Springer, this decision was more personal than others.

“See, much of my family was exterminated in the concentration camps of Germany during World War II,” Springer continued. “And I didn’t think in respect to my parents who were survivors of it all, that I could go along with the permit. And yet, I knew my constitutional obligations as mayor.”

“So what was I to do?” he asked.

“I called my folks. I would respect their wishes,” Springer remembered. “I didn’t tell them, but I had already decided that if they didn’t want me to let the Nazis march, I would resign and let the next mayor approve the permit.”

“But my Dad reminded me that this is America,” he said. “That this is the freedom we sought when we escaped to here.” 

“So we must never be a party to silencing any person or any point of view no matter how despicable,” Springer said. “If what is being said is nonsense or mean or spiteful or dangerous or if the person uttering it is unworthy, let the words and ideas fall on their own merit in the free marketplace of ideas not because they were silenced or denied a platform.”

He noted, “My parents lost their parents and brothers and cousins to Hitler and yet they still said, ‘Sign the permit. Let them march.’”

Springer would later say, “We have no journalism in a free society unless we have commentary from all parts of the community. From the poor, the disenfranchised. The Left, the Right, the outrageous, and yes, the different.”

The basic notion of free speech is anathema to so many today, increasingly in both parties, but preventing the sharing of news, opinion, and expression has bizarrely become an obsession for many formerly liberal Democrats. Springer’s comments as a Democrat from three decades ago sound like they come from a distant place and time ideologically in 2023.

This is America. Free speech has long been key to what makes America American, enshrined in our Constitution and instilled in our bones from birth. This was a principle most Americans for most of our history once understood intrinsically and deeply.

Jerry’s dad understood. His son did too.

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Jack Hunter
Jack Hunter
Jack Hunter is a freelance writer, the co-author of Sen. Rand Paul’s 2011 book ‘The Tea Party Goes to Washington’ and the former politics editor for