Judge rules 1998 English-only law violates free speech

Posted: Tuesday, March 26, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A law requiring government workers to speak only English when conducting public business violates constitutional guarantees of free speech and serves no compelling public interest, a Superior Court judge has ruled.

The law was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1998.

The law ''unduly constricts the opportunities for free expression'' and violates ''the rights of citizens to receive information and ideas,'' Judge Fred Torrisi of Dillingham said in a decision handed down late Friday.

The law was never enforced because it was challenged in state court.

''I'm very happy,'' said Anchorage attorney Doug Pope, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of the village of Togiak, a largely Yup'ik-speaking community near Dillingham.

''It's not a surprise,'' said Jennifer Rudinger, director of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, which along with the Native American Rights Fund filed suit for a group of teachers, Natives and government tourism workers. ''The law had many, many constitutional flaws.''

A spokeswoman for the organization that sponsored the initiative said the ruling will be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court.

''I don't really think this has anything to do with freedom of speech,'' said Susan Fischetti of Alaskans for a Common Language. ''This just has to do with the language of the state's business. It's just common sense.''

The restriction on the use of languages other than English would have affected elected and appointed officials and staffers on all levels of state and local government. It made exceptions for emergency or safety situations, for criminal investigations and court cases, for religion, for foreign phrases used during primarily English communications about art, and for talk between an elected official and his constituents.

It did not seek to regulate language used outside of government.

Supporters of the law argued that the government as an employer can regulate the speech of its employees on the job without infringing on their rights. It's the government's speech, not the employees' speech, that is being restricted.

But Pope argued that the people who live in and govern Togiak interact with one another on all levels of life and cannot separate government talk from nongovernment talk. Eliminating the use of Yup'ik would make local governing nearly impossible, he said. Requiring even people who are bilingual to use English only would inhibit their ability to understand or express themselves, he said.

Torrisi said public officials and employees have free speech rights and the ban would interfere with them. He said that even outside villages it is often impossible to precisely delineate the line between public and private speech.

''When is a food stamp worker who is comforting a crying child working as opposed to simply being human?'' he said.

Supporters of the law said it exempted Native languages from the ban, but Pope and the civil liberties group argued that it didn't really do so. The law said Native languages were exempt only as was necessary to comply with an existing federal law that has no teeth, Pope said.

Having invalidated the law on other grounds, Torrisi said it wasn't necessary for him to decide this question.

From the beginning, supporters of the initiative argued that their goal was to encourage immigrants to learn English for their own good, so they wouldn't become ''trapped on the lower rungs of our socio-economic ladder.''

Torrisi noted this issue has been debated all through American history. But historical studies suggest laws like this are not necessary, he said. According to experts, about 60 percent of immigrants and 90 percent of their children speak English ''well or very well'' within 10 years and join the economic mainstream in 10 to 15 years.

Torrisi emphasized that his ruling should not be read as requiring that government use any language but English, hire translators, or write forms in any language but English.

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