Welcome to Arizona: English-Only Zone
Arizona’s constitution not only makes English the state’s official language, it also gives anyone who has been discriminated against or penalized for using English the right to sue. So Terri Bennett, a nursing student at Tucson’s Pima Community College, sued her school for creating what she regarded as “learning environment [that] was hostile to English speakers” in violation of Article 28 §3 (b) of the Arizona constitution:
A person shall not be discriminated against or penalized in any way because the person uses or attempts to use English in public or private communication.
It’s hard to find a case where English-speakers are the target of language discrimination. That’s more likely to happen to speakers of minority languages, like the employees at an Albuquerque Whole Foods who were suspended recently for speaking Spanish, a violation of the store’s English-only rule. The bad publicity generated by that incident forced the chain to rewrite its language policy to respect the linguistic diversity of its workers and customers.
But Bennett, who prefers linguistic uniformity, complained when students in two of her nursing classes spoke Spanish to one another during lecture and in small study groups. In her lawsuit, Bennett charges that, instead of ordering the Spanish-speaking students to obey Arizona law and speak English, instructors and school administrators openly fostered a “learning environment [that] was hostile to English speakers who did not speak Spanish.”
Bennett further claims that this anti-English policy made her feel “ostracized, excluded, and segregated from the rest of her class, the majority of which all spoke Spanish (including the instructors).” Bennett escalated her complaint to the director of the nursing program, the dean, and other higher-ups, but instead of redress she was slapped with a nine-month suspension and ordered to “improve her communication style and . . . learn to be less abrasive with students and instructors,” and she was abruptly escorted off campus by security guards. (The immediate ejection may seem an extreme reaction to a student complaint about classroom language, but Jared Loughner, one of Pima College’s more notorious students, who felt the government was trying to control his grammar, had also been suspended, and so the school may have been taking no chances with students it regarded as troubled or troublesome.)
When news of the Bennett lawsuit broke, Conservative bloggers rubbed their hands with glee, calling her suspension by the college a “war on English.” Bennett v. Pima Community College was exactly the kind of case that opponents of immigration had in mind when Arizona passed its official language law: a leftist, “politically correct” public school alleged to have treated Bennett “adversely” for speaking English, while favoring foreigners with no English who were probably undocumented to boot. The case was so tantalizing that ProEnglish, an organization devoted to making English official and banning foreign languages and their speakers, found a prominent conservative law firm to file Bennett’s complaint.
But Bennett’s might not be the test case that supporters of official English have been waiting for after all. Suspensions are a matter of school discipline, and courts are often reluctant to intercede in such internal decision-making. More important, though, is the possibility that it was Bennett, not her instructor, who showed language bias. According to PCC’s nursing program director, David Kutzler, who is mentioned in the lawsuit, many of Bennett’s allegations aren’t true. Spanish-speaking students did not disrupt classes or steer discussion from English to Spanish, leaving anglophone students at a disadvantage and unable to learn. Kutzler told the Daily Caller that at Pima, “All of our courses are taught in English; all student-instructor interactions are in English; all learning materials are in English and all tests are in English.” Kutzler says that Bennett wanted him to force the other nursing students to speak English when conversing privately, something that he didn’t want to do and that, in any case, he had no authority to do. It wasn’t a war on English after all at Pima, but a war on Spanish.
Frankly, there is no war on English, at Pima Community College or anywhere else in the United States. There seem to be only two cases in the record of language rights litigation that touch on discrimination against English speakers, and neither one screams “War on English!” In 1990 an English-speaking nurse charged that her supervisor in a New York City hospital discriminated against her by speaking Tagalog, but her complaint was dismissed when she did not appear at trial, and so the question of reverse language discrimination was not tested. In another case, Dimaranan v. Pomona Valley Hospital (775 F. Supp. 338 [C.D. Ca. 1991]), the court ruled that hospital management could impose a temporary “no Tagalog” rule on the night shift in one unit in order to deal with a supervisor’s mismanagement, which included alleged favoritism toward Tagalog-speaking nurses at the expense of English- and Spanish-speaking nurses, but discrimination against English-speakers was not a factor in the decision.
Indeed, most language discrimination cases protest the imposition of English-only workplace rules. So far as nursing goes, most nurses who have sued did so because they’ve been told they can’t speak Tagalog or Spanish or some other nonanglophone language on the job. As for schools, most schools seem to be at war with languages other than English: one Nevada school district banned Spanish on the schoolbus; a New Jersey high school tried to ban foreign languages in the classroom; and a federal court upheld a Kansas school ban on all languages but English in the hallways, the lunchroom, and the playground as well.
It’s not clear, too, that anyone in the United States has ever been injured by an agent of government simply for using English. Like Article XXVIII of Arizona’s constitution, a federal proposal to make English official, the English Language Unity Act (H.R. 997), provides those who feel they have been discriminated against for using English the right to sue: “A person injured by a violation of this chapter may in a civil action . . . obtain appropriate relief.”
Provisions like these reinforce the growing fear that foreign languages threaten the right of Americans to go about their lives in an English-only environment. But such laws are paranoid. Yes, it’s possible to discriminate against an English speaker, but such discrimination will never happen in numbers great enough to warrant legislation framed to suggest that English and its speakers are in any danger. Instead, it’s minority language speakers whose language use is targeted in the workplace, in schools, and by governments like Arizona’s, whose official language law is really a declaration of war on Spanish.