The Right to Read

This is the post excerpt.

It’s been a bad few weeks for reading.

First a South Carolina police union pressured a high school to drop two books from its summer reading list. The problem? The books depicted cops as violent racists. The union defended its foray into censorship because, “when people don’t like the books their kids are asked to read, they call the police.”

To report what? An assault on complacency? A break in . . . of the mind?

One of the YA novels on the police do-not-read list, The Hate U Give, New York Times best-seller for 38 weeks, was banned in Texas the year before. Whatever happened to, Books don’t hurt people, people hurt people? Oh wait, that’s a different issue.

Then, as if the book police weren’t bad enough, a Detroit federal judge ruled that there is no constitutional right to read. The First Amendment guarantees the freedom to print books, but not the right to learn to read them.

Here’s what happened. A group of Detroit parents sued the state of Michigan for failing to teach their children how to read. The parents argued that Michigan requires their children to go to school. It sets the curriculum and licenses teachers. Plus, in 1999 the state took control of Detroit schools during the city’s financial crisis. In doing so, Michigan became responsible for the success or failure of Detroit’s schoolchildren. It’s true that if some students don’t do well, that doesn’t mean the schools have failed. But when most students don’t learn to read, as in Detroit, then the system isn’t delivering.

Since most of Detroit’s schoolchildren are black, the parents alleged that their children “have been denied access to literacy on account of their race, in violation of their rights under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

In its defense, the state insisted that the existence of a public school system “is no guarantee that the children will become literate.” So what does the state think schools are for?

Actually Judge Stephen J. Murphy, III, agreed with parents that Detroit’s underfunded, overcrowded schools are not doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re not teaching students to read or write or do basic math. That’s bad, really bad, Murphy acknowledged. But it’s not unconstitutional.

In dismissing the case, Murphy said that “access to literacy” is not a fundamental right. Fundamental rights have nothing to do with reading words on a page. They’re things like life, liberty, and guns.

These anti-literacy stories out of South Carolina and Michigan are the opposite of the usual “nobody reads books any more.” Today’s book news is much worse: there’s too much reading. There are two ways to stop it. The South Carolina way: censor the books. Or the Michigan way: don’t teach children how to read.

The South Carolina police think that reading is child endangerment. First kids can’t go to the pizza joint because they’ll be trafficked by the liberal elites. Now the library isn’t safe for them either. And in Detroit? In Detroit schools no longer have to teach children to read, so the police won’t have to worry about them reading books that expose police brutality. Or reading the Constitution, the one document that the founders might have wanted everyone to read.

Author: weboflanguage

Dennis Baron, a consulting linguist, has been writing about language, and the related issues of language, law, technology, gender, and education, for scholarly and popular audiences for four decades. He tweets @DrGrammar.