The California legislature has passed a bill to allow people to use any language that they want when they patronize or work for a business establishment.
It's already illegal to discriminate in California on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, marital status, or sexual orientation. If Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs the new bill into law, it will be illegal to discriminate in California on the basis of language as well.
Senate Bill 242 amends the Unruh Civil Rights Act to prohibit businesses in the state from banning the use of a language other than English on their premises, unless they can show unequivocally that such a ban is a business necessity. The legislation was introduced by Sen. Leland Yee last Spring in response to the LPGA's attempt to impose an English-only rule on women golfers. Yee is also concerned about restaurants making customers order in English, and the many businesses that require employees to speak only English when they're working, even when they're dealing with non-English-speaking customers, and even when they're on a break.
But Schwarzenegger, a supporter of official English who is a native German speaker born in Austria, may decide to veto the bill. Since 1988, Schwarzenegger has been a member of the advisory board of U.S. English, a group intent on making English the official language of everything from the federal government to the local hot dog stand. The governor stunned an audience at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in 2007 when he told them that in order for Hispanic students to do better in school, they have to "turn off the Spanish television set," avoid Spanish books and newspapers, and use nothing but English.
Meet the gubernator: Arnold Schwarzenegger with Rick Rodriguez, executive editor of the Sacramento Bee, at the Hispanic journalists meeting in San José
It's one thing to stress the importance of learning English, something that all immigrants seem to agree on. But it's another thing to discriminate against nonanglophones by banning their language outright, an all-too-common practice that Sen. Yee's bill would prevent (click here and here for posts on restaurants requiring English; click here for the LPGA English-only story; click here for language bans in the workplace, and here and here for language bans in school).
The language question has always been an important issue in California. In 1849, California's first constitution called for the publication of the future state's laws both in English and Spanish (California became a territory in 1848 and entered the Union in 1850, shortly after gold was discovered there). But in 1855 English became the official language of the California schools, and when the constitution was rewritten in 1879, Spanish was dropped and all executive, legislative, and judicial proceedings were ordered to "be conducted, preserved, and published in no other than the English language."
Debate at the 1878-79 California constitutional convention was spirited, with supporters of official bilingualism arguing that the Anglos were newcomers to the state who should observe the courtesy that was becoming of conquerors; that the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo through which California was acquired from Mexico in 1848 implicitly guaranteed language rights; that most states allowed publication of laws and other documents in minority languages; and that government and business were still conducted exclusively in Spanish in many parts of southern California, and restrictions on the use of Spanish in these areas would represent not only an injustice but a very real hardship.
But opponents of Spanish, whose view prevailed, countered that the treaty did not guarantee Spanish-language rights; that California's Mexicans had had some thirty years to learn English, which was more than sufficient; and that privileging Spanish would open the door for concessions to speakers of French, German, and even Chinese (protecting Native American languages never even came up). Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo did confer American citizenship on Mexicans who chose to stay in the region, at least one delegate to the constitutional convention, complaining of the paperwork that goes with official bilingualism, considered them to be strangers in their own homes: "We have here in the Capitol now tons and tons of documents published in Spanish for the benefit of foreigners." This sentiment clearly persists in California, where in a 1986 referendum, seventy-three percent of the electorate voted to make English the state's official language, and in 1998 sixty-one percent voted to end bilingual education.
Most states are busy imitating California by passing unnecessary laws making English official and protecting it from imaginary enemies, when in fact it's English that threatens the survival of minority languages, both those brought to the United States by willing and unwilling immigrants and those that existed in the New World long before Europeans came here and called it the New World.
Now, in an about-face, California seems poised once again to defend the rights of minority-language speakers, as it did in 1849, even though these speakers of Spanish, French, Chinese, and the governor's beloved German, not to mention Cambodian, Thai, Russian, Italian, Polish, Arabic, Hindi, and Urdu, are switching to English as fast as earlier generations of immigrants did, if not faster.
Until now, language discrimination cases had to be argued indirectly, either as violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of national origin, or of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1868, which guarantees all persons "the equal protections of the laws."
Gov. Schwarzenegger should realize that his support for official English, a language so strong it needs no defense, should not prevent him from protecting the rights of speakers of all languages. If he signs Senate Bill 242, California will become the first state in the nation both to make English official and to provide long-overdue official protection for speakers of minority languages, who for much of America's history have been the targets of irrational and invidious discrimination, and who may now finally enjoy equal protection of the laws.
The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment: "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." (From the National Archives)