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At least forty-seven million people, or eighteen percent of those living in the United States, speak a language other than English at home. (1) The two most commonly spoken languages in the home, other than English, are Spanish and Chinese. (2) These numbers are increasing, but the reality of the United States as a multilingual society is not a new one, (3) nor is it new that U.S. citizens and the government have expressed concern about and opposition to a multilingual society. (4) Groups advocating English as the official language of the United States are powerful lobbying forces that have achieved some success. (5) Twenty-seven states now recognize English as their official language. (6)
The growing number of foreign-language speakers in the United States has increased the demand for information and literature in a variety of languages. Library collections often include books, magazines, and newspapers in foreign languages. Hundreds of libraries in at least forty states, including states with English as the official language, provide information in Spanish on their websites and on their shelves. (7) The demand for foreign-language materials in public libraries has been high for several decades; for example, when Los Angeles' Chinatown Branch opened in 1977, all 500 Chinese-language books were checked out on the first day. (8)
While no legislation has expressly forbidden foreign-language collections, libraries have drawn criticism for providing these materials. (9) In Denver, Colorado, the public library system recently proposed seven "Language and Learning" branches to address the growing needs of its large Hispanic population. (10) Denver, which is thirty-five percent Hispanic, (11) also offers English conversation groups and Spanish-language G.E.D. courses at its public libraries. (12) Such services are not limited to cities with large populations of language minorities. (13) In Iowa City, Iowa, which is less than three percent Hispanic, (14) the public library offers introductory internet classes for Spanish speakers as well as English conversation groups and other educational programs. (15)
This Note analyzes the effect and constitutionality of English-only laws when they are used to limit library collections to English-language materials. No cases deal directly with English-only legislation as applied to libraries, but such laws and the outcomes of cases dealing with their validity in other situations have important implications for libraries. Part II of this Note will contrast the arguments for and against English-only legislation. Part III will then analyze the purposes of libraries and the varied state and individual interests involved to conclude that using English-only legislation to diminish libraries' ability to provide foreign-language materials would violate the Equal Protection and First Amendment rights of language minorities.
Before analyzing how English-only legislation may affect public libraries, it is important to understand the rationale behind English-only legislation and the prevalence of such legislation. This Part will look first at the current status of English-only laws at the state and federal level. This Part will then discuss the main arguments for and against such legislation.
A. The Status of English-Only Legislation
The United States is a nation of immigrants from all over the world; therefore, English has never been the only language spoken within its territories. (16) Because of this history, the fight for language rights in the United States is an old one. (17) At one time, Native Americans were forbidden from speaking their native languages. (18) Slave owners often subjected slaves to similar rules. (19) Today, English-only statutes exist in several forms, ranging from the symbolic to the highly restrictive.
1. English-Only Legislation in the States
As noted above, more than half of the states now recognize some form of English-only legislation. (20) Often, states that pass English-only legislation already have a high number of language minorities; Arizona, California, and Florida are examples of such states. (21) Even states whose language minority populations are lower than the national average have enacted legislation declaring English the official language. (22) While some of these laws "merely" declare English the official language of the state, others include complex provisions limiting the permissible uses of foreign languages in government activities. (23)
ProEnglish, an English-only organization whose goal is to adopt English as the official language throughout the nation, (24) has drafted a model statute for states to use if they choose to adopt English as the official language. (25) This statute requires that all government documents and proceedings be in English with some exceptions including health emergencies and criminal investigations. (26) The model statute also contains a provision providing that no person will be denied any benefit because English is his or her only language. (27)
The Supreme Court has not yet addressed the constitutionality of English-only laws. In Yniguez v. Arizonans for Official English, discussed below, the Ninth Circuit declared Arizona's English-only statute facially overbroad in violation of the First Amendment. (28) However, the Supreme Court vacated this decision on grounds of mootness, (29) so it did not reach the merits of the case. (30)
2. Federal Attempts at English-Only Legislation
Currently there is no federal law declaring English as the official language of the United States. The scope of this paper does not allow for a full discussion of federal attempts to officialize English, but it is important to note those that are the most recent. In May 2006, the Senate approved a resolution stating that English is the "common language" of the United States and that all "statements of national unity, including the National Anthem, should be recited or sung in English." (31) Such resolutions do not go far enough for some supporters of English-only legislation, so more restrictive bills continue to be introduced. In February 2007, Representative Steve King of Iowa introduced H.R. 997, which would declare English the official language of the United States. (32) One of the bill's stated purposes is "to avoid misconstructions of the English language texts of the laws of the United States." (33) The bill would require English to be used during all official government activity, with several exceptions, including during medical emergencies, crime investigation, and foreign language classes. (34) In contrast, in January 2007, Representative Jose Serrano of New York introduced the English Plus Resolution, which embraces the multilingual reality of the United States while at the same time encouraging increased opportunities for language minorities to learn English. (35) Both of these proposals are reintroductions of previous proposals, originally introduced in 2005 during the last congressional session; (36) neither of the 2005 proposals saw a vote, and it is uncertain whether either of the present proposals will reach the voting stage this time. If anything, they serve to illustrate the divergence of views as to the best way to foster English-language acquisition.
B. Justifications For and Against English as the Official Language
Several arguments are common to supporters of English as the official language. These arguments include the perceived contributions that Official English would offer to national unity, the increase of English acquisition by language minorities and the economic benefits that go along with such acquisition, and increased governmental efficiency. (37) There are compelling counterarguments to these claims, which are outlined below.
1. Official English Increases National Unity
Supporters of the Official English movement argue that a common language increases national unity. (38) They argue that the English language has acted as an adhesive that has held the United States together throughout its history. (39) These supporters emphasize the model of America as a melting pot, combining numerous cultures to create a single American society. (40) They argue that multilingual societies fracture into racial and ethnic subcultures, which increases intolerance and societal discord. (41) As an example, they cite the tensions between Canada and Quebec as an example of the dangers a multilingual society can create. (42)
Opponents of English-only legislation question the truth of the English-only movement's historical assertions. Even before its independence, the United States was a multilingual society. (43) English has not always enjoyed such a favored status; nor has it always been considered a unifying force. (44) In fact, the opposite was once true--at one point after the American Revolution, anti-British sentiment led to proposals to ban English. (45) Reliance on the historical primacy of English in the colonies and in the United States is thus inaccurate and unjustified.
English-only opponents also argue that the national unity argument is, in reality, a "velvet glove [hiding] the iron fist of prejudice and discrimination." (46) They view the movement as born from a belief that minorities, and Hispanics in particular, are a threat to the "superior" Anglo way of life. (47) To them, language becomes a substitute system for identifying undesirables. (48) Even if English-speaking communities see English-only legislation as symbolic and harmless, language minorities argue that this legislation is xenophobic and stigmatizing. (49)
In Canada and other countries that have experienced conflict along linguistic lines, legislation that was intolerant of minority languages was the underlying cause of conflict. (50) This reality contradicts the belief of many that a common language engenders trust. (51) In fact, opponents of English-only laws argue that a common language matters little when there is a larger history of oppression and inequality, as is often true with racial and ethnic minorities: "Blacks and whites clearly speak some version of the same language, but if there …