Court Halts Enforcement of Alaska's English-Only Initiative

March 3, 1999 12:00 am

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Wednesday, March 3, 1999

DILLINGHAM, AK–Less than 24 hours before it was scheduled to go into effect, a Superior Court judge agreed today that Alaska’s new English-only law should be put on hold until a legal challenge to the law is resolved.

The lawsuit, Alakayak, et al. v. State of Alaska, was brought by the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, the Native American Rights Fund and the North Slope Borough on behalf of 27 individuals whose constitutional rights would be violated if the initiative were allowed to take effect on March 4.

Heather Kendall-Miller, a staff attorney in the Anchorage office of NARF, said that the groups had asked the court for a preliminary injunction because a number of the Alakayak plaintiffs have meetings of their city governments or school functions scheduled for after March 4th.

The potential for state enforcement of the English-Only law against these plaintiffs after that date, she said, “threatens the most basic sovereign rights of these communities to meaningful self-government. Because these meetings are imminent,” she added, “the threat against these people is very real and very immediate.”

In legal papers filed with the court, the groups said that the English-only initiative violates a number of citizens rights under the state Constitution, including the rights to free expression and free speech, the rights of all Alaskans to have access to their government and to petition their government for redress of grievances, and the right to equal protection under the law.

“We are all very pleased that the Court has suspended this law, and we are convinced that our collective efforts will result in a finding that the initiative is unconstitutional,” said Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union.

“The initiative is worded so broadly that it covers oral communication as well as written documents. In most situations, Alaskans would be prohibited from communicating with government workers in any language other than English, even if the government worker happens to know other languages.”

Kendall-Miller said that her group is bringing this lawsuit “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.”

“Alaska Native villages have a fundamental community right to govern themselves through whatever structures they may choose,” she said, “which necessarily includes the right to do so in the Native languages of their communities, the only languages their citizens can understand.”

The Alakayak lawsuit., filed on February 16 of this year, was subsequently consolidated with another lawsuit filed in Dillingham on February 12th. That lawsuit, Kritz, et al. v. State of Alaska, was brought on behalf of three plaintiffs in Togiak challenging the English-Only law on state and federal constitutional grounds.

Attorneys on Alakayak case are Heather Kendall Miller and Eric Johnson with NARF; Bill Caldwell, of Fairbanks, for the AkCLU; Todd Sherwood with the North Slope Borough; and Les Gara for NARF.

Read the ACLU’s previous news release on the case at /news/1999/n021299b.html

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