WASHINGTON, Feb. 7—A Federal district judge in Phoenix has declared that the state’s constitutional amendment making English the language ”of all government functions and actions” in Arizona is a violation of federally protected free speech rights.
The decision on Tuesday was the first legal setback for the official-English movement, which gathered momentum in the later 1980’s, particularly in the South and Southwest as those areas experienced a large influx of Asian and Hispanic immigrants.
The judge, Paul G. Rosenblatt, ruled that the Arizona amendment ”is a prohibition on the use of any language other than English by all officers and employees of all political subdivisions in Arizona while performing their official duties.” As such, Judge Rosenblatt said, it could inhibit legislators from talking to their constituents or judges from performing marriages in a language other than English.
Gov. Rose Mofford, a Democrat who strongly opposed the 1988 campaign to amend the state constitution with the language provision, said she would not appeal the judge’s ruling. ”I am happy the courts ruled it unconstitutional,” she said, adding that the law was ”flawed from the beginning.”
In the absence of an appeal, Judge Rosenblatt’s ruling sets a legal principle that is binding only in Arizona. Other lawsuits dealing with the language issue around the country either are in their early stages or do not deal directly with constitutional questions.
Officials of U.S. English, a Washington-based group that has led the official-English drive, said that Judge Rosenblatt’s ruling was a setback but that they did not expect it to dampen their campaign in state legislatures, city councils and Congress.
Fifteen states in addition to Arizona have legal provisions making English the official language. Hawaii has had a constitutional provision since 1978 making English and Hawaiian the state’s official languages.
Last year, legislators in Suffolk County, N.Y., by a vote of 11 to 7, rejected a measure that sought to make English the county’s official language and required that most county business be conducted in English. A similar measure was approved in November in Lowell, Mass., where there has been a sharp increase in the number of Cambodian and Hispanic immigrants.
Group Founded in 1983
U.S. English was founded in 1983 by John Tanton, with the strong support of former Senator S. I. Hayakawa of California, a linguist who is the group’s honorary chairman. Mr. Tanton is a Michigan ophthalmologist who in 1979 founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
U.S. English emerged at a time of increasing backlash against such federally supported programs as bilingual education and multilingual ballots. Its message, that the primacy of English and its role as a bond were threatened, struck a chord with many people; the group said its dues-paying membership has climbed from a few hundred to 350,000 in five years.
By the end of 1988, 16 states had adopted laws or constitutional amendments making English their official language. But a spokesman for U.S. English said these laws had little or no effect on the day-to-day operations government, nor did they impinge on previously enacted measures like those mandating multilingual ballots or court interpreters for non-English-speaking defendants in criminal trials.
In Arizona, Maria-Kelly Yniguez, a state insurance claims manager, decided that speaking Spanish to claimants would put her in legal jeopardy. She then filed a constitutional challenge to the law.
Judge Rosenblatt said Ms. Yniguez’s self-censorship was ”a product of her legitimate sensitivity to the perils posed” by the 1988 amendment. ”A law which reasonably results in such restrictions is overbroad,” he said.
But there have repercussions to such measures outside state governments. In the San Gabriel Valley of California, where communities like Monterey Park have had an influx of Chinese and other Asian immigrants, there have been repeated proposals for laws banning or limiting commercial business signs in languages other than English.
Similar Troubles Elsewhere
There have been similar troubles in the work place: a supermarket cashier in Miami was suspended by his supervisor for speaking Spanish at work; a student employee at an Arizona community college said a security guard warned him not to speak Spanish during his lunch break; Filipino hospital employees in Pomona, Calif., said they had been not to speak Tagalog during their lunch break.
”People who support these laws are not doing it on an ideological basis,” said John Horton, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles, who is studying the effect of immigration on local politics. ”People are voting patriotism. Everyone’s for English being the basic langauge.”
Mr. Horton noted that it is ”interesting that the laws appear when there’s a massive influx of immigration and a concern about the United States’ role in the world.”
Katherine Ely, a communications adviser for U.S. English, denied that the group’s campaign had racist undertones. ”Twenty-five percent of our members are immigrants themselves,” she said. ”Our members feel that Enlgish is the door to opportunity.”
Yale Newman, the research and communications director for the group, added that ”the laws are necessary as a statement of principle.”
But Robert Brischetto, executive director of the Southwest Voter Research Project in Houston, said most Hispanic Americans view the campaign as ”a cultural slap in the face of Hispanics.”
”Symbolically, it sends a message to Hispanics that we don’t want you to bring your cultural baggage with you when you immigrate,” Mr. Brischetto said.
”You cannot coerce unity,” said Martha Jimenez, an official of the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund in Washington. ”There is no threat to the English language.”
The official-English measures, she charged, ”have by and large been directed at the Hispanic and Asian communities” with the veiled intent ”to use language as a proxy for discrimination.”