Being a believer in limiting the power of government to control our lives, I am wary of laws that allow the government to control anyone's expression. First Amendment concerns aside, the recently passed "English only" law goes a step further to prescribe not only what someone can say, but how they say it and with whom.
As a Spanish teacher, I have spent considerable effort encouraging, promoting and teaching an open view about language and the benefits of language learning. It is alarming to see language, the principle means of personal and cultural expression, used as leverage in the larger political and cultural debates of our society.
This recently passed law prohibits the government from using any language other than English in its official dealings or actions with many obvious practical exceptions, i.e., law enforcement, education, tourism, public safety, etc.
This toothless law has so many exceptions to its "English only" mandate that it dilutes any benefits that its proponents claim. In reality it ends up having minimal impact on actual law and the operation of government. The real impact with this law occurs as a negative social statement about immigrants and the ongoing assimilation or accommodation of new arrivals to the United States.
Many of my middle-school students have expressed fears, real or imagined, regarding the passage of Initiative A in the recent election. One girl asked sincere questions about the consequences for her German relatives that come to visit. Another teenage girl asked if she could be arrested if she spoke Spanish in a store. Yet another Tongan student wondered how they can do this in our country — it's supposed to be free.
In a school where up to 28 different languages are spoken at home, such a law adds to the stress of children in families already dealing with the cultural, economic or linguistic challenges they face in a new land. In spite of any good intentions surrounding the ideas in this debate, this law has left large groups of our society feeling the sting of a resentful slap in the face as they stand on the unwelcome mat of Utah.
This public initiative has codified into our law separate classes of language "haves" and language "have nots," which fundamentally violates the principles upon which our unique American society rests. At the very least, the message received is mean-spirited, hurtful and counterproductive as our society works to solve the problems inherent in welcoming all seekers of "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
Let's include language in the American marketplace of ideas — laws to restrict or constrain communication between the government and its people are unnecessary.
English is used and spoken as a common language in our society by the common choice of its citizens and has been used without government interference for centuries. As our courts consider the difficult social debate while reviewing this law, we should urge in this case a respectful deference to the basic rights established in our Constitution. Government regulations, or even the law, are not needed to "teach us all a lesson" about the importance of learning English.
Keith Homer teaches at Glendale Middle School in the Salt Lake City.