The Right to Read

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Title: The Right to Read
Creator: jedirita
Date(s): December 2, 2006
Medium: online transcript, podcast
Fandom: Harry Potter
Topic:
External Links: transcript online here; WebCite
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The Right to Read is an essay by jedirita at Slashcast.

Topics Discussed

Excerpts

It seems like I'm seeing age warnings appear more and more often these days. Several communities that had no such warnings when I first joined now require prospective members to submit an age statement.

Such age statements, along with the use of MPAA ratings for fic, have always bothered me, but over time I have become convinced that while these efforts are intended to protect children from adult content – an admirable desire – the practice has in fact become a form of self-censorship. The purpose of this essay, therefore, is to try to convince fan writers not to require age statements and not to use MPAA ratings. I will also be suggesting ways to more appropriately protect children from adult content.

The central issue at stake here is freedom of speech and its corollary, "the right to read." I recognize that not every country in the world specifically protects free speech as the US Constitution does. Also, the US Constitution does not recognize a "right to read." I am reflecting my bias as an American here, but freedom of speech is sacred to the heart of all Americans. It is rooted in the recognition that tyrants always seek to restrict speech, and that people must be allowed to speak freely, even if what they say is deemed offensive, in order to protect a free society.
This is where it helps to make a distinction between pornography and erotica. While I personally don't like to distinguish the two – I feel that "erotica" is just a term for socially acceptable pornography – the US courts have made a distinction between them. Pornography is image-based, while erotica is text-based. It's not a very sharp distinction, but it is a helpful one where fanfiction is concerned. Because fanfiction is erotica, not pornography.

It has been often noted that even the most smutty PWP still usually has a higher literary value than the letters in "Penthouse." Fanfiction even has a higher literary quality than much erotica, because it tends to be character-focused in a way that erotica seldom is.

However, when we use MPAA ratings or require age disclaimers, we de facto categorize our stories as pornography, and so do ourselves a disservice. While much of the wider world might not see the literary merit of fanfiction, we should not be swayed by their narrow view. What we write – even the smuttiest and perviest of it – is literature. And as such, people have a right to read it if they so desire.
I also hear people say, "JKR's lawyers have requested it, and it's better to do this in advance so as not to piss her off." To which I say, if JKR's lawyers have indeed sent you a letter, then you ought to do what they ask. But if they have not sent you a letter, then don't do their job for them. I may be wrong on this, but I'm willing to bet that JKR has finally realized that there are far too many fanfiction sites out there. Even if she is still trying to get to them all, the chances are very slim that she'll come after your fic. And even if she does, you'll just get a threatening letter. You won't go to jail. You won't get a fine. Fanfiction is here to stay, people. Eventually the prowriters will wise up to that. In the meantime, let's not do them the favor of censoring ourselves on their behalf. (I'd also like to add that if you have in fact received such a letter, you might as well state that upfront on your site, explaining that this is why you are password-protected. For example, "JKR's lawyers have requested that I password-protect my site. I appreciate your understanding." If I saw that, I would be much more inclined to jump through the hoops in order to access the site. Normally, I don't jump through the hoops because I object to the principle of the thing.)