The Right to Read


Reading—for education and for pleasure—may be framed as a personal indulgence, a moral virtue, or even a civic duty.  What are the implications of framing reading as a human right?

Although novel, a rights-based framing finds strong support in international human rights law.  The right to read need not be defended as a “new” human right. Rather, it can be located at the intersection of more familiar guarantees.  Well-established rights to education, science, culture, and freedom of expression, among others, provide the necessary normative support for recognizing a universal right to read as already implicit in international law.

This article argues that reading should be understood as a universal human right.  Once recognized in principle, it remains necessary to translate the right to read from a vague ideal into concrete content.  As a starting point, the right to read requires that every person be entitled to education for literacy and the liberty to freely choose the reading material they prefer.  Less obviously, but crucially, the right to read also means that everyone must have access to an adequate supply of reading material.  Law and policy must be designed to ensure that books, ebooks, and other reading material are made widely available and affordable—even to the poor and to speakers of minority languages.  Reframing reading as a human right also points to a reorientation of copyright law, and obligations upon publishers and technology companies to facilitate access for readers of all income levels and in every language.  Even in legal jurisdictions where international human rights law is not self-executing, the normative framework of a right to read can help to guide legislative reforms and private-sector initiatives.

A conceptual elaboration of the right to read also holds broader lessons for human rights theorists and advocates.  The right to read may be seen as an example of a broader trend toward “intersectional” human rights.  Far from undermining traditional human rights guarantees, as proponents of the dilution theory contend, intersectional approaches to human rights theory and practice hold particular promise to help transform rights from rhetoric into reality.



54 Colum. J. Transnat'l L. 1