The Tennessean, Dipti Vaidya/AP
Rosa Fernandez votes with her daughter Elena Wierich, 5, during early voting on the
Charter Amendment, Jan. 5, 2009, in
Nashville, Tenn. She voted against the proposal to
make English the mandatory language for all government business.

English-Only Measure Defeated in Nashville

January 23, 2009 12:30 PM
by Isabel Cowles
For the second time, voters refused to support a proposal that would require the Nashville government to offer services exclusively in English.

"English First" Falls Flat

On Thursday, Nashville city leaders and civilians turned out in large numbers to vote against legislation that would require all municipal government business and services to be conducted solely in English only.

The final tally was 41,752 against the measure and 32,144 in favor. Turnout was at about 19 percent, the largest for a special election in a decade, according to The Tennessean.

The "one country, one language" sentiment didn’t appeal to voters, because Nashville is becoming cosmopolitan and comfortable with its diversity, said University of Illinois professor Dennis Baron.

Eric Crafton, the author of the measure, called the proposal “English First,” while critics dubbed it, “English Only,” The New York Times reported earlier this month.

Many Nashville educators, policymakers and immigration specialists united in their opposition to the bill, which states, “No person shall have a right to government services in any other language [than English].” Even the traditionally conservative Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce was against the proposal for business reasons.

“Economics is global, and to be competitive you cannot drive away immigrants and the businesses that rely on them,” said Ralph J. Schulz, the chamber president.
Business leaders across Nashville expressed that if the law were approved, Nashville would lose millions in convention business.

Supporters of the legislation countered that, in addition to encouraging residents to learn English, the bill would save the city approximately $100,000 per year on translation services.

However, the vote itself cost nearly $280,000, which frustrated many Nashville taxpayers. Critics of the measure maintained that federal law requires the city to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on translation services anyway, and that additional conflicts with federal law would have plagued the city if the bill had passed.

Reference: U.S. Language Use and Population

Nearly 3.5 million citizens in the United States do not speak English at all, according to data from the 2000 Census report.
Furthermore, the population of immigrants in the United States is expected to grow substantially in the coming years. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, nearly twenty percent of Americans will be immigrants by 2050, compared with 12 percent in 2005. “By 2025, the immigrant, or foreign-born, share of the population will surpass the peak during the last great wave of immigration a century ago,” the center explains.

Background: English-Only in Tennessee

Mr. Crafton initially introduced the legislation in 2006. He was inspired by his time spent in Japan with the U.S. Navy; he had to learn Japanese to conduct the business of daily life there. Although the Metropolitan Council approved the bill in 2007, then-Mayor Bill Purcell vetoed the measure.

Crafton collected more than twice as many signatures as necessary for a referendum to keep the proposal alive.

Tennessee Republicans have also made a more specific attempt at English-only legislation. Tennessee law already states that English is the official language of the state. However, in April 2008, GOP leaders in the state legislature attempted to revise a bill about septic tanks to include a measure allowing businesses to mandate that employees speak English. The effort failed on a largely partisan 51–46 vote.

Historical Context: America’s History With English-Only Movements

The history of English-only movements in the U.S. dates back as least as far as the 1920s, when Nebraska passed a constitutional amendment declaring English the official language, a xenophobic response to an influx of German immigrants.

The surge of Asian and Latin American immigrants that began in the 1960s reignited the issue; in 1981, Sen. S. I. Hayakawa of California sent a measure to Congress proposing a constitutional amendment that would declare English the official language of the United States.

Although Sen. Hayakawa’s proposal was never reported out of committee, it popularized an English-only debate that continues today. Other measures have been introduced in Congress, and failed; however, several states have passed English-only laws.

Opinion and Analysis: Would English-Only Damage Immigrant Communities?

The Nashville Stand for Children chapter wrote an editorial in the Tennessean before the election, saying that it would be “harmful to children and to our community to pass a law that restricts communication,” because the language restriction would interfere with the administration of human services to immigrant families.

Ginny Welsch, executive director of Radio Free Nashville, argued the point more emphatically: the bill would have prohibited individuals not fluent in English from benefiting or participating in health or safety services provided by the government, which means the measure is unconstitutional. Welsch wrote that the bill violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by discriminating against individuals where public funds are concerned. She also alleged that the bill went against the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and “First Amendment free-speech protections for both the non-English speakers and city officials and employees.”

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines