Two lawsuits challenge Alaska’s English-only law

Friday, February 19, 1999

Alaska’s newly adopted “English-only” initiative, which mandates that English is the only language to be “used by all public agencies in all government functions and actions,” violates free-speech and free-petition rights, according to two lawsuits filed recently in state court.

The initiative, set to take effect March 4, was passed in November 1998, receiving 69% of the popular vote.

The law provides 11 exceptions so that government officials may communicate in a language other than English, such as when an official teaches students a language, communicates health and safety information in an emergency, attends a religious ceremony or investigates criminal activity.

Proponents of the law say that another of the exceptions — allowing government officials to speak in another language “to the extent necessary to comply with federal law, including the Native American Languages Act” — saves the law from constitutional attack.

However, opponents of the initiative argue that the federal law is only symbolic and will not adequately protect non-English speaking people from the broadly worded Alaskan law.

A total of 30 plaintiffs in the two lawsuits contend the initiative violates their rights under either the Alaska Constitution or the U.S. Constitution — or both.

In Kritz v. State of Alaska, three citizens of the city of Togiak — including the mayor and a city councilman — contend the law violates both their free-speech and free-petition rights under both the First Amendment and the corresponding provision in the Alaska Constitution. Most residents of Togiak are Yupik, and many speak only the Yupik language.

The plaintiffs in the Kritz case assert that they have a “fundamental right” to:

  • “Choose when to speak in Yupik and when to speak in English.”
  • “Petition government in any language they choose.”
  • · “Participate in the process of governing while speaking in Yupik.”

Douglas Pope, attorney for the plaintiffs in the Kritz case, told “In essence, this law purports to tell people when they can and cannot speak in any language other than English. Under the First Amendment, only individuals can make this choice.”

In the second lawsuit, Alakayak v. State of Alaska, the Alaska Civil Liberties Union challenged the English-only law on behalf of 27 different plaintiffs from various cities, towns and villages in the state, including Manokotak, Bethel, Barrow and Anchorage.

The Alaska Civil Liberties Union, which brought the suit in conjunction with the Native American Rights Fund and the North Slope borough, challenged the law only on state constitutional grounds. “For strategic reasons — because the Alaska Constitution offers broader free-speech and free-petition protections than the U.S. Constitution and because we did not want the case to be removed to federal court — we decided to bring our claim only under the state Constitution,” Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, told

The Alakayak suit alleges that the English-only initiative violates protected freedoms and “imposes a content-based restriction on speech.”

The plaintiffs in the Alakayak case — including Spanish, Yupik and Inupiaq speakers — also allege that the law is “void for vagueness and chills a substantial amount of speech that may arguably fall within the margins of the law.”

However, an official with the group U.S. English, which helped campaign for the Alaska initiative and does so nationwide, says the law does not restrict First Amendment rights.
“We stand by the constitutionality of this law,” Eric Stone, the group’s director of research, told

“Opponents of official English laws often try to cast these laws as infringing on free-speech rights, but these laws only apply to government employees and when a government employee is speaking, his employer — the government — has a right to tell the employee what to say,” Stone said.

“It will be troubling if a court strikes down this law and recognizes a right to receive information from the government in any native language,” he said. “It will also be troubling if the government cannot control what its employees say on the job.”

“We are very confident in this case,” Rudinger said. “This law is stupid. The government will not be able to articulate a compelling — or even a legitimate — reason for having this law.”

Rudinger and Pope both cite the 1998 Arizona Supreme Court decision in Ruiz v. Arizona in which the Arizona high court struck down a similarly worded English-only measure. The state high court ruled that the Arizona English-only constitutional amendment violated free-speech rights by creating a “linguistic barrier between persons and the government they have a right to petition.”

The U.S. Supreme Court declined last month to accept an appeal of the Arizona high court’s decision filed by a group favoring the amendment, Arizonans for Official English.