Three states will soon vote on proposals to make English their official language. It’s a popular, bad idea. Few Americans dispute the importance of a common tongue; an open society thrives on open communication, and economic opportunity in America depends on knowing English. But to require it smacks of discrimination.

The question is on the Nov. 8 ballot in Arizona, Colorado and Florida, where there are large Hispanic populations. They follow California, where ”official English” was approved by a wide margin in 1986. Both Presidential candidates oppose it and in the two states that also have senatorial elections, both of Florida’s major party candidates oppose it and Arizona’s are split.

A group called U.S. English leads the official-English campaign. It insists that its sole aim is integration, not discrimination. But a newly disclosed 1986 memo by its chairman, John Tanton, has caused an uproar. The group’s president, Linda Chavez, resigned in protest this month and Mr. Tanton quickly quit, too.

The memo was submitted to a conference on immigration in which he participated; the U.S. English group itself was not involved, but the memo left no doubt that its chairman was looking at ways to stem the influx from Latin countries. One line conveys the flavor: ”Does the heartland want to give up more [Congressional] seats to California, Florida and Texas just so immigration can continue?”

The memo’s existence was disclosed during the Arizona referendum campaign. Until now, only California has voted on official English; 13 other states have adopted it by legislation stretching back many years. Recent bills in other states have failed.

In California there has been no English-only legislation since the referendum, and exceptions have been made for such things as bilingual education, hospital emergency rooms and 911 police phone lines. Some employers have adopted English-only rules, but some of those have been rescinded when challenged.

Dade County in Florida, which includes Miami, also has official English; it’s limited to county business, and sometimes gets silly. The English-only crowd argued that nameplates for zoo animals were a ”county publication,” so could not use foreign words. The issue was resolved by paying for the nameplates with private donations.

The ballot questions in Arizona, Colorado and Florida have more to do with symbolism than reality. Advocates want a barricade against the emergence of a two-culture America. Opponents see it as an affront to minorities. English is, and should be, America’s language. All who would live here should learn it. The overwhelming majority do, but America’s traditions are stained by offensive laws that say they must.

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