In Victory for Alaska Natives and Other Non-English Speakers, Court Declares English-Only Law Unconstitutional

Affiliate: ACLU of Alaska
March 22, 2002 12:00 am

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DILLINGHAM, AK–A state court today struck down Alaska’s English-Only law, saying that it prevents government officials from communicating with the public in violation of basic free speech rights.

The Alaska Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that challenged the law, hailed the ruling as a hard-won victory.

“”This ruling confirms what our Alaska Native plaintiffs in the villages have known all along: that the Constitution protects all Alaskans’ right to freedom of speech, regardless of what language we speak,” said attorney Eric Johnson, who argued the case last October for the Alakayak plaintiffs represented by the AkCLU, the Native American Rights Fund, and the North Slope Borough.

In his 36-page decision, Superior Court Judge Fred Torrisi ruled that the English-Only initiative violates the Alaska Constitution’s free speech provision by unduly limiting the ability of public officials and government employees to communicate with members of the public in need of their assistance, absent any showing that this law serves a legitimate purpose or that speaking in other languages somehow interferes with government employees’ ability to do their jobs effectively.

To the contrary, the judge agreed with arguments by the plaintiffs’ attorneys that allowing government employees and public officials to communicate with members of the public in languages other than English actually makes government more, not less efficient.

“”In those situations in which it can’t be said that the use of another language actually interferes with a public employee’s job, it becomes difficult to justify official English on the basis of efficiency,”” Judge Torrisi wrote.

“We are delighted with the court’s decision,” said Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union. “The Judge expressed his dismay at having to strike down an initiative that was passed by the voters of Alaska, but in the end, he was bound by the actual wording of this poorly drafted law and he really had no choice but to strike down the entire law as unconstitutional.”

Although the ballot initiative was passed by a wide margin in 1998, it has never been enforced because the challengers obtained a court order in March of 1999, preventing enforcement of the law until a decision could be reached on whether or not it violates the Alaska Constitution.

Rudinger said that voters were misinformed by proponents of the initiative who were heavily funded by an outside group called U.S. English which paid for placement of misleading ads on tv and radio.

“”Voters were told that Alaska Native languages would be exempt from this initiative’s ban on non-English languages, and they were led to believe that this ban only applied to written documents, not to oral communications,”” Rudinger said. “”Both of those assertions are patently false, and had the voters been told the truth about this law’s impact on Alaska Native languages and cultures, we do not think it would have passed.””

Heather Kendall Miller, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund and lead attorney for the 26 plaintiffs in the Alakayak case, points out that the English-Only initiative violated the free speech rights of people like 70-year-old Henry Alakayak from the village of Manokotak, who speaks only Yupik and who serves on the City Council.

“Under this law, Mr. Alakayak would be incapable of performing his duties as a city council member and would be prevented from participating in city council meetings,”” Miller said. “”He would effectively be forced to resign from public office if all communications were required to be conducted in English.”

Kendall Miller also noted that plaintiff Grace Hill, a city council member of the City of Quinhagak, would likewise be inhibited from performing her duties as a member of that council since she speaks Yupik with other council members.

Other plaintiffs who said they would have been harmed by the law include the Mayor of the North Slope Borough and plaintiffs who hold official positions in education, Kendall Miller said. Plaintiffs Walter Tirchik of the village of Chefornak and Veronica Michael from Bethel both speak Yupik and sit on the Curriculum Content Area Committee of the Lower School District, and assist in developing Yupik language curriculum.

The State of Alaska and the sponsors of the initiative are expected to appeal the judge’s ruling to the Alaska Supreme Court.

The two consolidated cases are Kritz, et al. v. State and Alakayak, et al. v. State. Attorneys on the Alakayak case are Johnson; Kendall Miller, Bill Caldwell of Fairbanks for the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, and Todd Sherwood with the North Slope Borough. Attorney Doug Pope of Pope & Katcher in Anchorage represents the Kritz plaintiffs.

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