Chancellor Heard and His Defense of Academic Freedom

Academic freedom is “of transcendent value” and “a special concern of the First Amendment.” [1] It carries profound significance to those in college and university environments, which are supposed to be places where ideas are tested, debated and sometimes debunked.

They hold a “unique place in the conversation about speech.”[2] They are supposed to be “bastions of free thought and critical dialogue.”[3] Unfortunately in recent years, there has been a movement to suppress controversial speakers and silence those who espouse offensive expression.[4]

In the 1960s, during the height of the free speech movement at University of California, Berkeley, it was students advocating for change and pushing the envelope. Mario Savio famously delivered his “bodies upon the gears” speech in December 1964, railing against what he perceived as an autocratic university that he pejoratively called “the operation of the machine.”[5] Now, the great irony is that often it is students who sometimes are advocating for the suppression of free speech, sometimes resorting to even physical violence against speakers they don’t like.[6]

One person who defended the principles of academic freedom was former Vanderbilt University Chancellor Alexander Heard, who in the 1960s particularly stood up for the right of students, faculties and others to be exposed to what many might consider controversial expression. He explained in his book “Speaking of the University: Two Decades at Vanderbilt,” that “for a while at Vanderbilt, the major focus of my attention and use of my time, especially during 1967, were directed at containing the threat to what I deemed an elementary university necessity — maintaining a free forum for debate on public questions.”[7]

During that time, beginning in 1964, Vanderbilt hosted the Intensive Mentoring Program for Advancement and Career Training (IMPACT) symposium, which brought to campus a variety of public speakers of prominence, including many of those advocating for civil rights. The speakers’ line-up for 1967’s IMPACT may have been the most impressive ever: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sen. Strom Thurmond, Allen Ginsburg, and Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.[8]  Some objected to Carmichael and his message of “black power.” The Tennessee legislature passed a proclamation denouncing Carmichael and his “racist poison.”[9]

But Chancellor Heard never wavered in protecting academic freedom and the ability of his students to hear different points of view. Author Frye Gaillard, himself a Vanderbilt student at the time of 1967’s IMPACT, recalls: “At a time when students at Berkeley and other places were demonstrating in support of free speech, the top administrator at Vanderbilt was committed to that principle as we were, willing, in fact, to risk his own job.”[10]

Carmichael spoke about the evils of institutional racism and received a standing ovation at IMPACT 1967. Chancellor Heard received significant criticism for his defense of controversial speakers. The Nashville Banner wrote that nothing “can remove the stench of the Stokely Carmichael visit to Vanderbilt University.”[11]

But the reality was that Alexander Heard stood for the principle of free thought and the exchange of ideas. The legendary John Seigenthaler, longtime editor of The Tennessean, recalled years later: “The students who ran IMPACT, and Alex Heard as chancellor and the Heard administration, they were not afraid of controversy,” he said. “They anticipated there would be some controversy that would emanate from the programs at IMPACT. It was part of what the academy was supposed to be about.”[12]

Today, colleges and universities — both administrators and students — could learn much from the great Alexander Heard and his defense of academic freedom and controversial speakers in 1967. Heard said it best himself: “The university’s obligation is not to protect students from ideas, but rather to expose them to ideas, and to help make them capable of handling and, hopefully, having ideas.”[13]


[1]Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 395 U.S. 589, 603 (1967).

[2] Sigal R. Ben-Porath. Free Speech on Campus 8.

[3] Keith E. Whittington. Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech 6.

[4] Erwin Chemerinsky, “Hate Speech is Protected Speech, Even on College Campuses,” Vox.com, Dec. 26, 2017. Accessible online at https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/10/25/16524832/campus-free-speech-first-amendment-protest

[5] Quoted in David L. Hudson, Jr. Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded 65-67.

[6] Greg Lukianoff. “How Students Are Killing Free Speech,” 52 Insights, Sept. 7, 2018. Accessible online at https://www.52-insights.com/interview-politics-greg-lukianoff-how-students-are-killing-free-speech-education/

[7] Alexander Heard. Speaking of the University: Two Decades at Vanderbilt 70-71 (1995).

[8] Frye Gaillard. A Hard Rain: American in the 1960s, Our Decade of Hope, Possibility, and Innocence Lost 393-94.

[9] Gaillard at 396.

[10] Gaillard at 396.

[11] Quoted in Gaillard at 401.

[12] Quoted in “Part of Our Coverage of IMPACT’S 50th Anniversary IMPACT 67 and 68: Stories from the Early Years, Inside Vandy, Feb. 19, 2014.

[13] Quoted in “Former chancellor who led Vanderbilt through trying times dies at 92,” The Tennessean, July 26, 2009.


David L. Hudson Jr. is a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute, and a law professor at Belmont University who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment titled, “Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment” (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).

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