In the Fall of 2007, St. Anne Catholic School in Wichita, Kansas, instituted an English-only policy for students: no language except English in class, in the halls, at lunch, or on the playground. Adam Silva, a sixth-grader whose native language is English, and who had attended St. Anne’s since kindergarten, refused to sign the required English-language loyalty oath because he wanted to speak Spanish sometimes too, so he was expelled (the school insists that Silva left voluntarily).
Now Silva, his parents, and three other students and their families, are suing St. Anne’s in federal court for discrimination. They seek an end to the foreign-language ban, along with Silva’s readmission, monetary damages, and court costs.
Supporting the students’ complaint against St. Anne’s are two letters that the school distributed about its English-only policy. The principal announced that her ban on foreign languages came in response to a few students bullying their classmates in Spanish, and using Spanish to talk disrespectfully about teachers and staff. But in an official letter to parents, English-only was re-framed as educational, not punitive: speaking only English on school grounds would strengthen students’ command of the language so that they could become more successful.
Parents were asked to sign and return the form above, acknowledging that they understood the new English-only-for-success school policy
Students were asked to read and sign a second letter distributed in class which links the English-only rule, not to academic achievement, but to discipline issues like proper behavior during lunch and recess. The last paragraph of this letter notes that the Bishop of Wichita has approved the English-only policy and concludes with a warning to students to speak English and nothing else, or “consequences will follow.”
This letter to students about the English-only policy is framed as a threat: do it, or else
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim that the school’s language rule is racist and xenophobic, not educational. They say that the policy doesn’t really target bullies, since the school already had a stiff anti-bully rule, plus Silva and the other students involved in the suit had never been accused of bullying anyone in any language. But lawyers for the diocese insist that the Wichita school has done nothing wrong. And they further argue that the school can’t be required to follow federal nondiscrimination laws, since it doesn’t receive federal funds directly, but merely passes government money along to students who qualify for aid.
This isn’t the first time that English has been mandated as a school language. The 19th century schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs were English-only, and students were regularly punished – sometimes beaten – if they used their native languages at any time. In 1918, William Harding, the governor of Iowa, issued his own English-only rules, banning the use of any foreign language not just in classrooms but anywhere in public, including trains, sidewalks, meetings, churches, even telephone conversations. The U.S. had recently entered World War I, and Harding wanted to discourage the state’s German speakers from using the language of the enemy.
Excerpt from the ”Babel Proclamation” of Iowa Gov. William Harding, issued in May, 1918, banning foreign language use in any public setting.
In an interview with reporters, the governor elaborated on why not just conversation, but also prayer, should be in English: “There is no use in anyone wasting his time praying in other languages than English. God is listening only to the English tongue.”
Visiting Des Moines five days after Harding issued what came to be known as his “Babel Proclamation,” former Pres. Theodore Roosevelt endorsed the governor’s English-only rules, adding the comment often echoed by English-only supporters today, “This is a nation – not a polyglot boarding house.”
“Colonel for Knockout. Wants the War Carried to Berlin – One Language for America.” New York Times, May 27, 1918, p. 8
Harding rescinded Iowa’s English-only rule after the war, though the American war against foreign languages continued. Today, Spanish, not German, seems to be the language of the enemy. Alarmed by Census figures showing that the Hispanic population of Iowa had doubled, going from only 1% to 2% in a decade, in 2002 Iowa voters made English the state’s official language, despite the fact that most of Iowa’s 80,000 Hispanics also spoke English.
Last May, Kansas adopted its own official English law. It has a much narrower scope than Harding’s Babel Proclamation, requiring state employees to use English, but permitting them to use other languages in order to comply with federal law, to encourage trade and tourism, to protect public health and safety, and to preserve the constitutional rights of the people.
Unlike the Babel Proclamation, the Kansas law only covers official government activities. It doesn’t apply to schools like St. Anne’s, which are private, or to religion, business or the media. But many nongovernmental organizations are going English-only too, establishing language policies to create their own private English-only Babel.
The courts have responded to private language bans in mixed fashion, defending employers’ rights to control on-the-job behavior in a reasonable fashion, but also supporting workers’ rights to use the language of their choice when language choice is not critical for business purposes. As for the language rights of students, in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students don’t automatically surrender their First Amendment right to free speech “at the schoolhouse gate.”
St. Anne’s isn’t the first American school to threaten students with “consequences” for speaking a language other than English inside the schoolhouse gate. But while the Tinker decision allows schools to control student language when it is disruptive or poses a danger to others, there’s no provision in Tinker, or anywhere else, for schools to ban students from using other languages when they’re not in class. It may be desirable for students to master English – remember, it’s Adam Silva’s native language – but as the Supreme Court ruled in Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), a decision overturning state bans on teaching foreign language in the schools, “Perhaps it would be highly advantageous if all had ready understanding of our ordinary speech, but this cannot be coerced by methods which conflict with the Constitution, – a desirable end cannot be promoted by prohibited means.”