Why We Still Need Freedom to Read Week

Why We Still Need Freedom to Read Week

The following essay was written for a graduate seminar in the Master of Publishing program (MPub) at Simon Fraser University.
PUB 800 | Spring 2016

In the 21st century, citizens in developed nations seem to have more freedom to information than ever, yet this perception is problematic for several reasons. The most overt being that even though it appears free by world standards, especially in Canada, there are invisible forces affecting our daily access to information. Even in Canada, books are removed from shelves in Canadian libraries, schools, and bookstores, printed materials are banned at the border, and Internet overlords control what gets published and what is visible online. As much as we as Canadians and educated citizens want to romanticize the democratization of the Internet, we still need Freedom to Read Week to raise awareness. It’s not just about censorship and banned books within Canada, it’s also about raising awareness on a global scale, an especially pertinent point with the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. With the freedom to read comes great responsibility—to literacy, to access, and to a diversity of voices and perspectives—which is integral to an engaged society and well-informed citizens.

Librarians and educators have been grappling with the issues surrounding intellectual freedoms on local, national and international levels for decades. The changes to both public and private spaces has been significant with the rise of digital technologies. With these changes, more questions are raised, around the commercialization of public spaces, digital preservation, cultural identity, copyright, privacy, and the flow of information. Many of these issues cross disciplines, also affecting publishers, writers, artists, and other creative and cultural professions. At the root of these concerns is the basic human rights principles of equality, freedom of opinion and expression. In Canada, the Canadian Charter of Right and Freedoms guarantees these principles. Insofar as it relates to the freedom to read, the Charter states that everyone has the right to “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the Freedom to Read Week 2016press and other media of communication” (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982). It was on that principle that The Book and Periodical Council (BPC) formed the Freedom of Expression Committee. Formed in 1975, the BPC is a national arts service organization for Canada’s writing and publishing industry that undertakes projects and initiatives related to reading, writing, publishing, distribution and freedom of expression (BPC, n.d.). The Freedom of Expression Committee formed in 1978, when religious groups attacked Margaret Laurence’s books, particularly The Diviners. The volunteer-run Committee was established “to mobilize support on Laurence’s behalf, and lobby more broadly against the threats to free speech represented by the attacks against her” (Keeler, 2014). They also monitor Canadian censorship issues, publish a free annual kit on intellectual freedom, and produce Freedom to Read Week, celebrated during the last week of February. The program—which marked its 32nd year on February 21–27, 2016—supports events across the nation that encourage Canadians to engage and think about intellectual freedom and equal access to information.

While the political and literary climate has changed drastically since 1984, there are still books banned in schools, challenged in libraries, and denied entry across borders. In the past several years, there has also been several large issues of concern, in addition to smaller confrontations that garnered the public’s attention. Although I will speak generally about the issues and challenges facing the Freedom of Expression Committee, many of these issues deeply affected other intellectual organizations such as the Canadian Library Association and the Association of Canadian Publishers, many of whom also lobbied the government and participated in advocacy campaigns. We will also focus on a Canadian context, but the issue of intellectual freedom, freedom of speech and expression are serious concerns in less democratic nations. In Saudi Arabia, Raif Badawi has been sentenced to ten years in prison and one-thousand lashes for ‘crimes against Islam’ by writing on his blog. Badawi wrote a book, 1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think, about the incident and the need for free speech. Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy was arrested in 2013 with two Al-Jazeera English colleagues “for airing what a court described as “false news” and coverage biased in favour of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood” (Loriggio, 28 Dec 2015); and recently, several Hong Kong booksellers have gone missing following accusations of “illegal book trading” in mainland China, including shipping unauthorized books. Closer to home, since 1986, Little Sister’s Bookstore in Vancouver has fought against the ongoing seizure and censorship of gay and lesbian materials that Canadian Customs classifies as ‘obscene’ under the Criminal Code and denied entry. In 2006 the Ontario Library Association (OLA) recommended Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak by Deborah Ellis as part of the Silver Birch reading program. However, the Canadian Jewish Congress urged public school boards to deny access and several school districts either restricted access or refused to stock the title (Freedom to Read Week, n.d.). Another example is the award-winning novel The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, which was retitled Aminata for the French edition and Someone Knows My Name for the American edition due to the assumption that the original title would not be saleable in those markets. As well, a Dutch group also threatened to burn the book due to the use of the word ‘negro’ in the title of the Dutch translation, Het Negerboek (Hill, 20 June 2011).

While these sound like straight-forward examples of overt censorship, sometimes it’s more complicated. According to the American Library Association, which organizes the American counterpart of Freedom to Read Week, the main reasons books are challenged is because the material is perceived to be sexual, racist, violent, or use offensive language. But when a book is removed from public access, such as in library circulation or a school classroom, this “violates everyone’s freedom to choose for themselves what content is appropriate and often silences writers and authors, which violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” (Mitchell, 30 Sept 2015). In writing for The Guardian after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, activist and author Roxane Gay wrote “writers and artists everywhere – should be able to express themselves and challenge authority without being murdered. Murder is not an acceptable consequence for anything” (Gay, 12 January 2015). Gay, who has won PEN USA’s Freedom to Write award, also countered that although the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were exercising their freedom of expression, disagreeing with their opinions or expressing offense at satire is also within another person’s rights for freedom of expression. The problem with delineating between ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ expressions—free speech versus hate speech—is that “demands for solidarity can quickly turn into demands for groupthink, making it difficult to express nuance. It puts the terms of our understanding of the situation in black and white – you are either with us or against us” (Gay, 12 January 2015).

Censorship is, unfortunately, still alive in this modern era, despite—or perhaps in spite—of our access to information. Recently, on the policy side of intellectual freedom comes several key moments in governance and public policy, both in Canada and globally. In 2012, the budget for federal libraries and Libraries & Archives Canada was drastically cut, reducing the number of tools and programs available. Also in 2012, the Copyright Modernization Act received royal assent, prior to which there had only been minor changes and additions since 1997. Since 2005, this copyright reform has undergone several iterations and included a lot of serious confrontation. Michael Geist, law professor and vocal columnist on law and technology, has said there are, “many positive elements in the bill [Bill C-11] that reflect a genuine attempt at striking a balance and developing forward-looking copyright laws” (Geist, 22 June 2012). However, the main concern with the new copyright act is an “unbalanced position on digital locks in which the digital lock trumps virtually all other rights” (Geist, 22 June 2012). Geist believes a more balanced approach was not taken due to pressure from the US regarding trade and border relations.

Most recently, in November 2015, the documents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Open Media has called “the biggest and most secretive agreement in the history of the world” (Open Media, n.d.) were finally made public after five years of closed-door meetings. The binding trade deal “will set common standards on issues ranging from workers’ rights to intellectual property protection in 12 Pacific nations” with the aim of “freeing up commerce in 40 per cent of the world’s economy” (Howard, 4 Feb 2016). Although most mainstream news sites focus on the economic trade aspects, opponents of the deal say the TPP threatens “digital innovation, free speech, and access to knowledge online” (Sutton, 20 May 2015). The root problem is a trade agreement that alters existing domestic legislation—especially agreed upon behind closed doors where civil society stakeholders were not present—does not have the best interest of Canadian citizens at heart. The TPP introduces changes in several key areas, which Michael Geist has been detailing on his website daily.

One major concern is the TPP would extend the copyright term 70 years beyond the life of the author. The Canadian Library Association (CLA) has been a very vocal opponent of TPP, stating that “changes in Canadian copyright law should be based on made-in-Canada legislation [such as the updating of the Copyright Act through Bill C-11] within the limits already agreed in the context of recognized international decision making bodies, such as WIPO” (CLA, 14 Feb 2012). Currently, Canada has ratified the Berne copyright term for literary works of 50 years, which is an advantage for research, academic scholarship, education, and further creative production such as reprints, derivative works, and new editions. “Libraries and archives fund non-commercial digitization projects that depend on the ongoing release of new materials into the public domain” (CARL, 23 Feb 2016). Also, in terms of cultural production, the TPP does not include a full exception for the cultural industries, which departs from longstanding Canadian policies and agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (Geist, 27 Jan 2016). Some other areas of concern to intellectual freedom include: the expansion of the ability to increase digital locks and increase penalties for circumvention; and the lack of distinction between copyright infringement for commercial gain and infringement from non-commercial activities (Geist; CLA, 14 Feb 2012), which threatens fair dealing exceptions; and the criminalization of ‘electronic espionage’ and disclosure of trade secrets, which others argue prohibits whistleblowing and restricts investigative journalism (Sutton, 20 May 2015). As of January 28, 2016, the 12 member nations have signed the TPP, but the pact “will still require years of tough negotiations before it becomes a reality” (Howard, 3 Feb 2016). In a Globe & Mail article, the new Liberal trade minister stated that signing does not equal ratifying and that “the [Liberal] government committed itself to a wide-ranging consultation on the TPP during its election campaign and that process was currently underway” (Howard, 3 Feb 2016).

Living in Canada, as well as other democratic developed nations, it is easy to believe our rights and freedoms are inherent to our citizenship, but the problem is that they are not. “The right to free speech and freedom of expression is a cherished and invaluable privilege, one that far too many people have no access to … such freedom is integral to a vibrant and cohesive society, no matter how off-putting some may find certain forms of expression.” (Redekop, 29 Jan 2015). One of the main purposes of Freedom to Read Week is raising an awareness about these issues regarding intellectual freedoms, realizing that materials are still being challenged and removed from public circulation, and that many marginalized voices face difficulty getting published, and sometimes explicitly silenced.


Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL). (23 February 2016). Statement on Intellectual Property Provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement. Retrieved from https://librarianship.ca/news/tpp-copyright/

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s 2, Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11.

Canadian Library Association (CLA). (14 February 2012). Comments of the Canadian Library Association on Potential Intellectual Property Aspects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Retrieved from http://cla.ca/wp-content/uploads/CLA_TPP_position_on_term_extension_feb12.pdf  

Book and Periodical Council (BPC). (n.d.) History and Achievements. Retrieved from http://www.thebpc.ca/the-publishing-industry/about-the-bpc/history-and-achievements/

Freedom to Read Week. (n.d.) Who We Are. Retrieved from http://www.freedomtoread.ca/who-we-are/#.Vtgg5xgtem0

Gay, Roxane. (2015, January 12). If ‘je ne suis pas Charlie’, am I a bad person? Nuance gets lost in groupthink. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/12/je-ne-suis-pas-charlie-nuance-groupthink

Geist, Michael (22 June 2012). Last Call on C-11: My Appearance Before the Senate Committee on Banking, Trade & Commerce. Retrieved from http://www.michaelgeist.ca/2012/06/c-11-senate-appearance/

Geist, Michael. (27 January 2016). The Trouble with the TPP, Day 18: Failure to Protect Canadian Cultural Policy. Retrieved from http://www.michaelgeist.ca/2016/01/the-trouble-with-the-tpp-day-18-failure-to-protect-canadian-cultural-policy/

Hill, Lawrence. (20 June 2011). What Lawrence Hill tells Dutch group planning to burn his book. Toronto Star. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/2011/06/20/what_lawrence_hill_tells_dutch_group_planning_to_burn_his_book.html

Howard, Rebecca. (4 February 2016). Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal signed, but years of negotiations still to come. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-trade-tpp-idUSKCN0VD08S

Keeler, Emily. (24 February 2014). We’re All Wildcards’: On Freedom To Read Week. Hazlitt.  Retrieved from http://hazlitt.net/blog/were-all-wildcards-freedom-read-week

Loriggio, Paola. (28 December 2015). Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy seeking to regain Egyptian citizenship as ‘matter of principle’. National Post. Retrieved from http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/canadian-journalist-mohamed-fahmy-seeking-to-regain-egyptian-citizenship-as-matter-of-principle

Mitchell, Krista. (30 September 2015). How anyone can celebrate Banned Books Week. BookNet Canada. Retrieved from http://www.booknetcanada.ca/blog/2015/9/30/how-anyone-can-celebrate-banned-books-week

Open Media (n.d.). Stop The Secrecy. Retrieved from https://stopthesecrecy.net/

Redekop, Corey. (29 January 2015). Freedom to Read, all the time. Retrieved from http://www.coreyredekop.ca/freedomtoread/

Sutton, Maira. (20 May 2015). Hundreds of Tech Companies to Congress: TPP and Fast Track Harms Digital Innovation and Users’ Rights. Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2015/05/hundreds-tech-companies-congress-tpp-and-fast-track-harms-digital-innovation-and