Superior Court Judge Fred Torrisi had the issue dead to rights on March 22 when he ruled in a case from Togiak that the 1998 law requiring government workers to speak only English infringes on free speech and serves no compelling public interest.
Advocates of the 1998 initiative that passed overwhelmingly argued that the primary reason for their campaign was to encourage immigrants to learn English so they wouldn't be mired at the bottom of American life.
Where have these advocates been? Immigrants to the United States have never needed a law to prompt them to learn English. They realize that to take full advantage of the land of opportunity they need to learn its primary language. In overwhelming numbers, they've learned English as a matter of course in becoming citizens and starting new lives.
Sure, dozens of U.S. cities have sounded like world crossroads for generations, with dozens of languages spoken in patchworks of immigrant neighborhoods. English-only warriors appear to fear those tongues as discord; millions of Americans have heard music in it, and made harmony of it. And from those neighborhoods have gone millions of English-speaking Americans, some accented, some not.
English has never needed a law to promote or defend it. Its value to people who come to the United States has been self-evident.
Here in Alaska, Native peoples have a claim to the use of their languages that is stronger than that of immigrants. They were here first. In a primarily Yup'ik-speaking community like Togiak, if the people wish to conduct official business in Yup'ik, that's their business. When people in Togiak, Aniak, St. Michael or Fort Yukon need to use English, they do.
In ruling there was no compelling public interest for this law, Judge Torrisi underscored one of the initiative's major flaws -- it was a solution in search of a problem.
Even more fundamental was the judge's ruling that the initiative unduly constricts opportunities for free expression and violates citizens' rights to receive information and ideas. The right to free speech isn't a right only to free English speech.
Some 69 percent of the voters approved the initiative in 1998, and that gave the judge pause. But it didn't change his mind, or the justice of his ruling.
Susan Fischetti of Alaskans for a Common Language said English-only in government is just a matter of common sense.
Common sense tells us the language that comes most naturally is the one to use in any government transaction. Common sense tells us that most often, it will be English, but doesn't have to be. Common sense tells us English-only is a slap at Native peoples, whether intended or not. Common sense tells us the opportunities of American life will do more for English than any law born in reaction to the nation's changing mosaic.
And more than 200 years of history as the world's least exclusive and most open nation teach us that Alaska and the United States can respect the rights of free speech in more than one language.
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