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Alaska Supreme Court hears English-only arguments

Posted: Wednesday, June 18, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Alaska's so-called English-only law is not meant to be a ''linguistic straitjacket,'' but a tool so government will not have to provide services in dozens of languages, Alaska's Supreme Court was told Tuesday.

But a straitjacket on speech is exactly what would occur if Ballot Measure 6 passed by voters is allowed to take effect, an opposing attorney argued.

Voters overwhelmingly passed the ballot initiative in 1998 but it was challenged before it could become law. A Superior Court judge ruled last year that it violates the rights of citizens to receive information and the free speech rights of government employees.

Alaskans for a Common Language, the group that got it on the ballot in the first place, appealed.

The ballot measure proclaims English to be the official language of the state of Alaska. It requires state and local governments to use English in all official business.

It comes with a list of exceptions, including the use of other languages to communicate health and safety information and to allow elected officials to communicate with constituents. It specifically states that Alaska's Native languages are protected under the federal Native American Languages Act.

But Eric Johnson, lawyer for dozens of plaintiffs, said the ballot proposal is backward. In America, most speech is allowed with a few exceptions such as yelling fire in a crowded theater, he said. What the ballot initiative does is ban speech except English and then make some exceptions.

''It really boils down to a flaw in the law,'' Johnson said. ''Here in America freedom of speech is the norm.''

Kevin Callahan, lawyer for Alaskans for a Common Language, said the ballot initiative is not a freedom of speech issue because it applies only to the official acts of government.

Justice Alex Bryner pressed Callahan on the issue.

''What is an official act?'' he asked pointedly. ''The problem I'm having is everything seems so vague. What is official language and official speech?''

Callahan said that would be up to each state agency.

If allowed to become law, the ballot measure would interfere with the ability of Togiak city employees to serve people each and every day, said lawyer Doug Pope, representing three Togiak men who are Yupik Eskimos, including the mayor and a city councilman.

It also will keep Yupik-speaking citizens from being heard, he said.

''The Alaska initiative says unequivocally English is to be used by all public agencies. It is a restriction on the use of language other than English,'' he said.

Chief Justice Dana Fabe also zeroed in on the issue of what Callahan meant by official language. If two Yupik city councilmen were corresponding on a problem with the operation of the local laundromat, would that be official language? she asked. Would that correspondence have to be translated and maintained in English?

Or, if a social worker is working with a Spanish-speaking client and is preparing something for the case file to be shared with the client, can that be written in Spanish or must it be in English, Fabe asked.

Callahan said materials that become part of the official record would have to be in English.

He again emphasized that the measure applies only to government speech, not personal speech. And he said it would be wrong to interpret the initiative as an English-only law because it does not say that state employees must speak English only, he said.

Fabe appeared unsatisfied with that response.

The justices did not say when they would rule on the issue.



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