The Right to Read

A couple of weeks ago I blogged here about a short essay I’d written, “E-books: No Friends of Free Expression,” and about a longer academic journal article on which it was based called, “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.”  Well, since then I’ve had a bunch of people writing in asking for copies of the article, and even more asking me about the “right to read.”

Here’s what I know about the latter.

To the best of my knowledge, the idea first appeared in a 1994 law review article by Jessica Litman called “The Exclusive Right to Read.”  It was picked up, extended, and given significant legal grounding by Julie E. Cohen in her 1996 (master)piece, “The Right to Read Anonymously.”  Then, in 1997, free software guru Richard Stallman dramatized the idea in a pithy little parable called — you guessed it — “The Right to Read.

The American Library Association proposed something like a “right to read” back in 1953, when it issued its first “Freedom to Read Statement.”  (The statement has since been updated, most recently in 2004, although it remains relatively quiet on the subject of 3G- and wifi-enabled e-readers.)  Meanwhile, the Reading Rights Coalition, an advocacy organization, was formed in 2009 after the Author’s Guild claimed the Kindle 2′s text-to-speech function violated its members’ audiobook rights — a claim that understandably didn’t sit well with the 30 million Americans with “print disabilities.”  Finally, librarian Alycia Sellie and technologist Matthew Goins developed a “Readers’ Bill of Rights for Digital Books,” which concludes with the important provision that reader information ought to remain private.

I’m sure there’s lots that I’ve missed and would welcome any further information you may have about the right to read.  For now, I hope you’re enjoying National Freedom of Speech Week, and don’t forget that reading is an integral part of the circuitry of free expression.

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2 comments

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ted Striphas, Jose A. Vazquez. Jose A. Vazquez said: The Right to Read http://bit.ly/9Vaarv [...]

  2. Ted Striphas says:

    A friend of mine emailed to say:

    “Lamont v. Postmaster General

    http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=381&invol=301

    esp. Brennan’s concurring opinion:

    ‘It is true that the First Amendment contains no specific guarantee of access to publications. However, the protection of the Bill of Rights goes beyond the specific guarantees to protect from congressional abridgment those equally fundamental personal rights necessary to make the express guarantees fully meaningful. See, e. g., Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 ; NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449 ; Kent v. Dulles, 357 U.S. 116 ; Aptheker v. Secretary of State, 378 U.S. 500 . I think the right to receive publications is such a fundamental right. The dissemination of ideas can accomplish nothing if otherwise willing addressees are not free to receive and consider them. It would be a barren marketplace of ideas that had only sellers and no buyers.’”

    FYI, Cohen discusses the Lamont case in her essay, “The Right to Read Anonymously.”

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