Lyle Stuart knows many of the books he publishes are objectionable to the average American, but he still wants people to be able to read how to make bombs and to learn the inner thoughts of a pedophile.
Stuart, 81-year-old president of maverick publisher Barricade Books, is an old hand at testing the limits of free speech and believes people should not be told what they can read.
"The strength of this nation is its First Amendment, its freedom to express all kinds of ideas, and that the public has to make their own determination," Stuart said in an interview at his Fort Lee, New Jersey, office.
Barricade's titles are far from mass-market and bestseller fare. While some have recorded substantial sales from online and mainstream outlets, they remain largely unknown to the general public, and the firm is driven more by principle than profit although it does not disclose financial data.
Among the books published by Barricade is Andrew Macdonald's The Turner Diaries -- an anti-Semitic, anti-black book that is almost a bible among right-wing militant US groups. It is believed to have inspired the bombing of the US federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Written in 1978, The Turner Diaries is a fictional work structured as a series of diaries recording a modern day revolution against the US government. It includes a plot to blow up an FBI building with a truck laden with TNT and ammonium nitrate fertilizer.
Other titles include Amy Hammel-Zabin's Conversations With a Pedophile and William Powell's The Anarchist Cookbook complete with instructions on how to make bombs and booby traps. The latter, popular on college campuses according to Stuart, comes at a time when post Sept. 11 jitters about bomb attacks are high.
Hammel-Zabin's book about pedophilia offers a close look at how a pedophile stalks and befriends children.
"Every family with children should have this book," Stuart said.
Stuart's free-speech crusade faces obstacles, especially since legislation aimed at thwarting terrorism passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US that has been criticized as chipping away at civil liberties.
To Stuart, the USA Patriot Act is the "un-Patriot Act" and his defiant stance and publishing record have won him admirers among civil libertarians and free-speech advocates.
"I think he is doing something very important. My freedom to chose what I want to read is not very valuable if my only `choice' consists of popular mainstream conventional materials," said Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"My heroes have always been those who are on the front lines of the First Amendment, including librarians and booksellers and people such as Lyle Stuart," she said.
Stuart's five-decade career has been spent as a writer, editor and publisher of books considered too racy or dangerous for other publishers.
"You can best describe me as a First Amendment fanatic because this is something I very deeply believe in," said Stuart whose career as a reporter started after he served in the US Army Air Corps during World War II.
As a reporter in the 1950s, Stuart found that his stories were at times being censored. So, he started a magazine called Expose, collecting stories cast aside by newspapers and magazines worried about offending advertisers.
A 1953 expose of the country's leading columnist of the 1930s and 1940s, Walter Winchell, brought Stuart fame and lawsuits aimed at silencing him. Winchell, a controversial figure considered by some to be the father of the gossip column, made and broke reputations with his columns.
Stuart, once a ghost writer of columns for Winchell, split with him when the famed gossip columnist rejected one of his stories about the poor treatment of black Americans in the American South.
"If you are not allowed to discuss ideas freely, then you have problems," said Stuart. "There always have to be some people who do unpopular things like myself."
Stuart used money collected from libel suits against Winchell in 1956 to start publishing house Lyle Stuart Inc which also revelled in controversy. He sold that in 1989 for US$12.5 million and started Barricade in 1990.
While Stuart does not believe in all of the words he publishes, he offers an anecdote about the dangers of suppressing what may seem like objectionable reading.
Recalling the story of Jewish friend who lived in Amsterdam on the eve of World War II, Stuart said her ability to read German allowed her to read Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf and prompted her to flee Europe for the US.
"So, my feeling is you should have access to everything," Stuart said. "Sometimes they'll make mistakes, but that's part of democracy."
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