Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Victory in challenging the English Only Initiative

On November 2, 2007 the Alaska Supreme Court struck down the unconstitutional provision of the Official English Initiative on the grounds that it violates speech rights protected by the federal and Alaska Constitutions. The English-only Initiative was adopted in 1998 and required the state, its political subdivisions and all state employees to use only English in all government functions and actions at the state and local levels.

Twenty-seven plaintiffs from the Yup’ik villages of Quinhagak, Manokotak, Kasigluk, Chefornak, and Atmautluak brought suit against the state to block the Official English Initiative’s implementation. Plaintiffs included local governmental officials, educators, and members of the public from villages that would have been impacted by the law were it to go into effect. Other plaintiffs included five Alaska Natives residing in the cities of Barrow and Bethel, as well as four non-Native plaintiffs. The case was consolidated with another challenge brought by plaintiffs from Togiak represented by attorney Doug Pope.

The lawsuit was brought to protect the rights of Alaska Native villages to freely choose, shape and control the forms of community self-governance that exist in their local communities. Because Alaska Native villages exercise their powers of community self-governance through numerous structures, both tribal and state, many of the most basic powers of community self-governance in Native villages are exercised through institutions established under state law, such as city governments, school districts, and the various citizen advisory boards that provide local input on state agency decisions. Alaska Native villages have a fundamental community right to govern themselves through whatever structures they may choose, which necessarily includes the right to do so in the Native languages of their communities, the only languages many of their citizens can understand.

NARF successfully argued that the law would not protect Native languages, that it would require government employees to communicate with non-English speakers only in English, even if they were able to speak the individual’s language, that it would bar non-English speakers from receiving many services to which they are entitled, and that it would violate the constitutional rights of each Alaskan to speak in the language of their choice, to petition their government for redress of grievances and to equal protection of the laws.

The Alaska Supreme Court agreed and held that "if all government communications must be in English, some voices will be silenced, some ideas will remain unspoken, and some ideas will remain unchallenged." Op. at 44. The court went on to state that such a requirement harms "society as a whole, which is deprived of an uninhibited marketplace of ideas. Complete speech bans . . . are particularly dangerous because they all but foreclose alternative means of disseminating certain information." Op. at 45.

The Court severed the unconstitutional portion of the initiative that required the use of only English. Under the Court’s ruling, the revised law allows government communication in any language for any purpose, as long as English versions of official records and documents are kept.