Tennessee State Capitol, Nashville

English-Only Measure Meets Opposition in Nashville

January 12, 2009 03:34 PM
by Isabel Cowles
A proposal requiring the Nashville government to communicate only in English faces opposition from entrepreneurs, policymakers, educators, minority groups and immigration experts.

English First, or English Only?

On Jan. 22, citizens of Nashville, Tennessee, will vote on a proposed law to require government officials to communicate only in English.

Eric Crafton, the author of the measure, calls the proposal “English First,” while critics have dubbed it, “English Only,” The New York Times reports.

Many Nashville educators, policymakers and immigration specialists are 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 is 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.

“It is wrong morally because it diminishes the value of individuals and it speaks against the principles of liberty for all,” said Patricia Stokes, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Middle Tennessee, who spoke at a news conference.

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

Critics counter that federal law requires the city to spend most of that sum anyway. In addition, conservative lawmakers argue that voting on Crafton’s measure will cost about a half a million dollars in public money. Business leaders believe that if the law is approved, Nashville will lose millions in convention business.

Nashville has been called “the Athens of the South” for its diversity, though the English-only measure may be gaining momentum as the economic slowdown has turned some Nashville citizens against the growing immigrant population. Early voting began on Jan. 2 and will continue through Jan. 17.

Reference: 2000 census on U.S. language use

Nearly 3.5 million citizens in the United States do not speak English at all, according to data from the 2000 Census report.

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: Will English-only damage immigrant communities?

The Nashville Stand for Children chapter wrote an editorial in the Tennessean saying that it is “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, argues this point more emphatically: the bill would prohibit 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 writes that the bill violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by discriminating against individuals where public funds are concerned. She also alleges that the bill goes 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.”

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