Arizona high court finds English-only law unconstitutional

Wednesday, April 29, 1998

PHOENIX — The Arizona Supreme Court said that a voter-approved law requiring that only English be used in government business went too far.


Requiring that official state and local government business be conducted only in English unconstitutionally encroaches on free-speech rights, the court ruled Tuesday.


It also makes it more difficult to get information and services, the court said, and violates the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.


An activist who campaigned for the law and who defended it from legal challenges said he will appeal the ruling in federal court.


“The First Amendment applies to private speech, not government speech. What they’re saying here now is that … a government employee has a right to choose what language to do business in,” said Robert Park of Prescott. “That is totally unacceptable.”


Arizona is one of at least 21 states that have enacted official English laws. Most are largely symbolic, with several merely stating that English is the state’s official language.


The Arizona measure, approved in 1988, required the state and its political subdivisions to “act in English and no other language” and prohibited them from making laws or policies that required the use of a language other than English. Also, no government document “shall be valid, effective or enforceable unless it is in the English language.”


It allowed exceptions to comply with federal law, to protect the rights of crime victims and defendants, to protect public health and safety and to teach students in bilingual education.


A U.S. District Court tossed the law out as unconstitutional.


But the U.S. Supreme Court sent the issue back to state courts on a technicality: the state employee who had filed that suit later left her government job.


Attorney General Grant Woods’ office defended the law as constitutional because it was limited in scope, but an aide said Woods welcomed the latest ruling.


“It’s probably a good thing because we didn’t need English only anyway,” Woods spokeswoman Karie Dozer said.


State Sen. Pete Rios, who was among the plaintiffs, said the measure’s supporters played on unjustified fears of those who cannot speak other languages.


“There is no movement in the state of Arizona to replace English as the official language of this state,” Rios said. “People accept that English is the official language of this state.”