11 April 2007

The Right to Read Is the Right to Be Free

As we approach the summer of "Harry Potter Mania," with the release of the fifth movie (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and the seventh and final book (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), it's time to remind everyone about the importance of our freedoms as members of democracies—all democracies. We frequently pontificate about Freedom of Speech, and to a depressing extent in recent years have had to actively defend it against our own governments, but much less is spoken about the Freedom to Read. It is just as important, just as crucial, to the protection of basic human freedoms. With the release of the sixth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in 2005 that freedom came under assault from the very institution the should have protected it.

The mention of the word "controversy" around the name "Harry Potter" usually means the new Christian Right attacking the series for promoting "witchcraft" and other such twaddle. I have plenty I could say about that, and I'm not even particularly a Harry Potter fan. But I am a fan of fantasy in general, so an attack on Harry Potter could easily widen into an assault on the most imaginative genre in all of literature. However this particular controversy had nothing to do with religion or witchcraft. It was about the freedom to read a book.

In July 2005, a few days before the official release of Half-Blood Prince, a Real Canadian Superstore in British Columbia accidentally sold fourteen copies of the novel to consumers. The natural reaction from the store and the Canadian publisher, Raincoast Books, should have been, "Ooops! Oh well." Offer the buyers some goodies if they return the books, but otherwise leave it alone. Maybe ask them to please be kind to other readers and not spoil any of the secrets.

But then the unthinkable happened. Raincoast Books asked for an injunction from the Supreme Court of British Columbia to prohibit the buyers from reading the books or discussing their contents. And the court granted the injunction. A U.K. lawyer even said "there is no human right to read."

Think about that. A few people were accidentally sold some children's books by mistake a few days before they were technically supposed to go on sale. And a court in one of the largest democracies in the world ordered them not the read the books.

Anyone who respects democracy, freedom of speech, or just old books in general should be outraged that this happened. These people had purchased the books legally, even if the seller had made a mistake as to when he could sell the books. They had the right to read them. Even if they hadn't purchased them, if someone had just handed the book to them, they could read them. Even if the stole the damn books, they could read them. The theft is what is illegal, not the reading. The Supreme Court of British Columbia bowed down to pressure from corporate interests and chopped away at the most fundamental tendon of democratic rights. That Raincoast Books offered some inducements to the buyers if they returned the novels, like a free T-shirt and an autographed copy of the book, is just a further insult: hey kids, sell your freedom for some goodies.

There was some outrage in the Canadian press, such as a call to boycott buying the books, and this strong defense from lawyer Michael Geist:

This is all done purely in the name of furthering commercial interests. In Canada, we have some narrow restrictions on hate speech and child pornography. But we do not issue court orders that prohibit children from reading books.

For a judge to issue such a blatantly unconstitutional order is appalling. For a book publisher and a children's author to request such an order, is shameful.
But there should have been even more outrage, especially in my home country of the U.S.A. The freedom to read is the freedom to think. There is a human right to read, no matter what that lawyer said (how much do you think corporate shills paid for that announcement?); it is part of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. If you have no freedom to read, you have no freedom: it is that simple. Just take a look at George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel that continually becomes more and more frightening as we move away from its hypothetical year. To control language, to destroy words, is to take away a person's ability to form his or her own ideas or thoughts. The Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four hacks away at words, chopping them up until almost nothing is left so that no one can form a thought that the Party does not control. The only material allowed to be read is junk churned out on machines for the "proles."

When I taught reading classes to children, I emphasized to them, over and over, that reading gave them power. It gave them the power of free thought. It gave them the power to expand their minds. It made them thinkers. In these times when too many democracies believe they can curtail freedoms based on vague notions of security or, as in this case, pressure from corporations, thinkers are our greatest hope. Thinkers are frightening to the oppressors. Good…be frightening. Dare to think.

So, this summer, as you line up to purcahse that last Harry Potter novel, think back to a frightening incident two years ago surrounding the boy wizard, and remember:

The Right to Read is the Right to be Free.