SPIKE LEE hasn't had the best relationship with the press. In the past, he's been dogged by questions about why he doesn't donate more money to causes of interest to the Black community. He has faced charges of anti-Semitism and has been accused of insensitivity.
Reporters covering Lee have, in other words, been reporters. Lee seems to think they should not ask certain questions. Indeed, the press spotlight on public figures can be annoyingly bright.
But Lee's recent injunction against class participants speaking to the press goes too far, as does his refusal to allow members of the press to attend his lectures. The defense of Lee's rules by Professor Henry Louis Gates and Dean of Students Archie C. Epps is equally troubling.
LEE JOKED about being a dictator in his class who could establish arbitrary rules with impunity. He said he would punish students who did go to reporters with information about the class. Epps seemed to back him up with some arcane professor's privilege rule about not allowing the press into class.
But not allowing press access to the class--a poorly conceived rule in itself--is different from the blanket order prohibiting students from speaking to reporters, which Epps and Gates had more trouble defending.
This order attacks the basic idea of an academic community--a place in which ideas move freely. Lee's apparent misunderstanding of the role of free speech in such a community should not be ignored. In trying to protect himself from the frequent barrage of press criticism, he would curtail the academic give-and-take central to any curriculum.
"I don't want this to turn into a media circus," he said. We agree. But along with Lee's privileges as a star in the film world comes interest in his academic views about filmmaking. And when he taps into that interest at a university, he must acknowledge the students' privileges--and their rights--as well. These include the right to speak freely about what is taught in the class.
THE RULES about access to his ideas change when Lee becomes not just a public figure but also a teacher. Whether he likes it or not, Lee serves as a resource for this community. Secluding his class behind closed doors and forbidding the open discussion of his lectures is counter-productive to learning.
Thanks for coming, Spike. We're glad you're here. But remember, you're a member of an academic community now, and universities are based upon free discussion.