English Language Requirement

9th Circuit upholds Proposition 227 English language requirement

Case name: California Teachers Ass’n v. State Bd. of Educ., No. 99-56784 (9th Cir. 08/29/01).

Ruling: The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Proposition 227, which required teachers to provide instruction in English or face potential liability, was constitutionally valid in a case addressing a controversial English language statute. The court ruled its “chilling effect” on speech, if any, would be minimal. Also, educators could violate the statute under its terms only if they willfully and repeatedly refused to implement it.

What it means: Proposition 227, a ballot initiative, was passed by California voters in 1998. In this case, the 9th Circuit upheld the resulting law, finding its application would have a chilling effect only on a very small amount of protected speech, if any. The statute also only required teachers to provide an “overwhelming” portion of their instruction in English, not all instruction.

Summary: Codified in the California Education Code, the law restricts the use of any language other than English in schools. Section 320 of the Code provides parents the opportunity to sue and hold liable any school teacher, administrator or official “who willfully and repeatedly refuses to implement the terms of this statute.”

The California Teachers Association challenged the statute, claiming it was vague on its face and violated their First and 14th Amendment rights. They charged the law was vague, since it did not specifically indicate how teachers and officials could violate the statute. As a result, they sought to enjoin the enforcement of Section 320. The U.S. District Court, Central District of California, ejected the teachers challenge and they appealed.

The 9th Circuit upheld the District Court and ruled Section 320 was not unconstitutionally vague. The court commented facial invalidation of a statute was an extreme remedy and one to be used sparingly. The current case was not an instance where that extreme remedy was applicable. First, its application would have a chilling effect only on a negligible amount of protected speech, if it chilled any speech at all. It would be unlikely teachers and officials would completely limit themselves to English only, as the statute required the teachers to provide an “overwhelming” portion of their instruction in English, not all instruction. Thus, the teachers could still use non-English languages when necessary.

Second, the districts’ pedagogical interests outweighed the teachers’ First Amendment interests. The level of First Amendment protection afforded to teachers’ instructional speech, if any was afforded at all, was significantly lower than that afforded to a lay person in a public setting.

Finally, the level of intent required by Section 320 was substantial, the court noted. That is, the teachers and officials could not be found liable for a single violation of the statute or an inadvertent violation of the statute, as it required them to “refuse to implement” the statute “willfully and repeatedly.” Thus, the court stated it seriously doubted such wrongful intent could be found if an educator in good faith attempted to comply with Proposition 227.

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