Vanderbilt University, Freedom Forum announce ‘John Seigenthaler Center’

Friday, July 26, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — John Seigenthaler, nationally acclaimed newspaper editor and First Amendment advocate, is getting an unexpected present for his 75th birthday tomorrow: Vanderbilt University officials announced today that one of the university’s newest buildings is being named after Seigenthaler.

The building, at 18th Avenue South and Edgehill Avenue, will be named the John Seigenthaler Center. It houses the offices of the Freedom Forum, the First Amendment Center and the Diversity Institute.

The action was approved by the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust and recommended by the Freedom Forum Board of Trustees. Nicholas S. Zeppos, Vanderbilt provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, was joined in making the announcement by Charles L. Overby, chairman and CEO of the Freedom Forum.

The building will be dedicated in September in ceremonies including prominent national and international participants.

The Seigenthaler Center encompasses 57,000 square feet and includes a just-completed three-story expansion that was funded by the Freedom Forum and donated to Vanderbilt.

“Because of John Seigenthaler’s leadership and foresight, the Freedom Forum has made a substantial and long-lasting investment in Vanderbilt University,” Chancellor Gordon Gee said. “It is a unique relationship between one of the country’s most important foundations and a great university — and it would not have happened without John’s spark and persistence.”

“John Seigenthaler is known across America and around the world as a defender and champion of freedom,” said Martha R. Ingram, chairman of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust. “He has dedicated his life and career to the principles of the First Amendment, and so it is most appropriate that the First Amendment Center he conceived and founded in his hometown be named in his honor now.”

“Beyond being highly honored and deeply grateful, it is my sincere hope that the projects and programs initiated in this building will bring great credit to Vanderbilt and will have both meaning and impact in places far outside the limits of the campus. I am indebted to Chancellor Gordon Gee and the members of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust and to Chairman Charles Overby and my colleagues on the Freedom Forum Board for their positive interest and support,” said John Seigenthaler.

“John Seigenthaler is a national treasure,” Overby said. “No matter where I go around the country or around the world, people always ask about John. His work for a free press continues to be legendary.”

Overby said it was Seigenthaler’s idea to create the First Amendment Center, which opened in Nashville in 1991. The center moved onto the Vanderbilt campus in 1993 with completion of the renovation/addition to the historic Peabody College presidential home.

“This is the first building in Nashville and in Tennessee to bear John’s name,” Overby said. “It’s fitting that a building dedicated to the First Amendment and diversity be lionized by the ongoing legacy of John Seigenthaler.”

On July 1, Vanderbilt and the Freedom Forum announced the first Seigenthaler Scholar, Leah Monique Watson, a student from Little Rock, Ark. Watson is the initial recipient in an ongoing, four-year scholarship program for students of color that is supported by a $2 million gift in 2001 from the foundation. The scholarship will be awarded to an entering freshman each year, chosen by an independent committee. Scholars receive full tuition for four years at Vanderbilt. Watson will participate in an internship at the First Amendment Center.

Seigenthaler founded the First Amendment Center with the mission of creating national discussion, dialogue and debate about First Amendment values. He served for 43 years as an award-winning journalist for The Tennessean, Nashville’s morning newspaper, and at his retirement was editor, publisher and CEO. He retains the title chairman emeritus. In 1982, Seigenthaler became founding editorial director of USA TODAY and served in that position for a decade, retiring from both the Nashville and national newspapers in 1991.

Seigenthaler left journalism briefly in the early 1960s to serve in the U.S. Justice Department as administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. His work in the field of civil rights led to his service as chief negotiator with the governor of Alabama during the Freedom Rides. During that crisis, while attempting to aid Freedom Riders, he was attacked by a mob of Klansmen.

Seigenthaler hosts a weekly book-review program, “A Word On Words,” distributed through the Southern Public Television Network. He is a member of the boards of trustees of the Freedom Forum and the First Amendment Center, and a former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He is chair of the “Profile in Courage Award” selection committee of the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library Foundation and of the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award selection committee for the RFK Memorial.

A chair in First Amendment Studies has been endowed for $3 million in Seigenthaler’s name at Middle Tennessee State University. He serves on the advisory board of the school of journalism at the University of Tennessee and on the Board of Trustees of the Baker Center at the University of Tennessee. He also serves on the 18-member National Commission on Federal Election Reform organized in 2001 by former Presidents Carter and Ford. He is a member of the Constitution Project Initiative on Liberty and Security, created after the Sept. 11 tragedies in New York and Washington.

Vanderbilt University is a private research university of approximately 5,900 undergraduates and 4,300 graduate and professional students. Founded in 1873, the university comprises 10 schools and a distinguished medical center along with the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies and the First Amendment Center. Vanderbilt offers undergraduate programs in the liberal arts and sciences, education and human development, engineering and music and a full range of graduate and professional degrees.

The Freedom Forum is a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people. The foundation focuses on three main priorities: the Newseum, First Amendment issues and newsroom diversity. The Freedom Forum funds two independent affiliates: the Newseum, the interactive museum of news planned for Washington, D.C.; and the First Amendment Center. It was established in 1991 under the direction of Founder Allen H. Neuharth as successor to a foundation started in 1935 by newspaper publisher Frank E. Gannett. The Freedom Forum, based in Arlington, Va., is not affiliated with Gannett Co., does not solicit or accept financial contributions, and does not accept unsolicited funding requests. Its work is supported by income from an endowment of diversified assets.

The First Amendment Center works nationwide to preserve and protect First Amendment freedoms through information and education. The center, with offices at Vanderbilt and Arlington, Va., serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, the right to assemble and petition the government.

The Diversity Institute at Vanderbilt University, established in 2001 by the Freedom Forum, is a training program for people of color who want to become journalists but have not had journalism training. The institute’s first class began its training in June.

Media contacts:

Elizabeth Latt, Vanderbilt University, 615/322-NEWS (
Gene Policinski, Freedom Forum, 615/727-1303 (