Alaska’s high court rules on English-only law

Anchorage, Alaska (AP) 11-07

Alaska’s highest court struck down a central provision of a state law requiring only English to be used for all government business.

However, the Supreme Court in an 89-page decision durng November let much of the law stand.

Attorney Doug Pope said the ruling means that his clients in Togiak can continue to conduct city council meetings largely in Yup’ik, the only language some of them speak. And while public records must be in English, versions in other languages also can be provided and maintained in the same government files. The English-only law was passed by voters through an initiative in 1998, but has never been in effect. Togiak, the North Slope Borough, the Alaska Civil Liberties Union and the Native American Rights Fund quickly challenged the new law, and won an injunction that had kept it in limbo until the November 4-1 decision.

The dissenter, Chief Justice Alex Bryner, said the entire law should have been thrown out as violating the U.S. and Alaska constitutions.

Instead, the majority focused on two sentences in a provision defining the scope of the law, the first of which reads: “The English language is the language to be used by all public agencies in all government functions and actions.”

The court found that to be unconstitutional because it violates federal and state rights of free speech.

But a second sentence, “The English language shall be used in the preparation of all official public documents and records ...” could be kept as long as it also allows documents to be offered in other languages, the court said.

The high court decided not to consider other sections of the law now, but noted that the rest of the statute would have to be enforced narrowly or other provisions also might be found unconstitutional.

Both sides claimed a measure of victory in the ruling.

Attorney Ken Jacobus, one of the original sponsors of the initiative, said, “The whole idea was to get people to speak English because it benefits them, not to prevent them from speaking their own language.”

Pope said the ruling is a clear victory for Togiak and the other plaintiffs.

“What (the court has) said ... is that the person speaking and listening (during government business) have a right to speak in a language other than English,” he said. “That’s a great victory for Natives and non-English speakers.”

The case was taken to the Supreme Court by Alaskans for a Common Language, the group that pushed the original petition.