Court Ruling Curtails Utah's English-Only Law But Leaves Confusion in its Wake, ACLU Says

Affiliate: ACLU of Utah
March 5, 2001 12:00 am

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SALT LAKE CITY -In a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, a district court judge here today upheld the rights of government employees and elected officials to communicate with the public they serve in languages other than English and made clear that the state can continue to give drivers license exams in other languages as well.

“As a result of the court’s ruling today, the English-only statute is largely symbolic,” said Stephen Clark, Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, which brought the case on behalf of elected appointed officials and an individual plaintiff with limited English proficiency. “However,” he added, “opponents of the initiative still have cause for concern because the ruling explicitly states that government communications in languages other than English cannot be considered ‘official.'”

Initiative A, known as “English as the Official Language of Utah,” was passed last November. The statute declares English to be the “sole language of government,” and with limited exceptions, requires that “all official documents, transactions, proceedings, meetings, or publications” be in English.

The ACLU said that Initiative A unconstitutionally denies limited English speakers fair and equal access to their government when it restricted the ability of government representatives to communicate and provide services in languages other than English.

In his decision, Judge Ronald Nehring acknowledged that any statute requiring routine government business to be exclusively in English would put the government in an unconstitutional straitjacket, trampling the rights of language minorities. However, his decision contains troubling language regarding non-English communications, implying that government communications must be in English to be considered “official.”

“By creating a language-based distinction between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ government information and services, the ruling essentially creates a two-tiered system that relegates language minorities to second class citizenship,” said Clark. “The ruling is sufficiently grave to warrant careful consideration of an appeal to the Utah Supreme Court.”

James Yapias, Chair of the State of Utah Hispanic Advisory Council and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said he was worried that the ruling will create more problems and confusion at the state level. “I believe that yesterday’s decision does little to clarify the extent of the statute,” he said.

Local cooperating attorneys in the case include Marlene Gonzalez from the Multicultural Legal Center and Milo Steven Marsden and Adam Price from Bendinger, Crockett, Peterson & Casey. To read the court’s decision, go to

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