Friday, June 06, 2008

This new right is wrong

More on the renewed battle to make Nashville's official language English. This quote from Mayor Karl Dean:

Dean specifically took issue with specific phrasing of the charter amendment proposal, which states, “No person shall have a right to government services in any other language.” City Paper

We're handing out 'rights' left and ...well, right in this nation. We invent them out of whole cloth. So now, surely Dean isn't saying new citizens have a right to have government business conducted in their native language? How can that possibly jibe with the requirement that new citizens must prove their proficiency in English? If he thinks it'll be expensive to defend the constitutionality of this charter amendment, wait until he sees the bill for this new right.


John Lamb said...

The tone of your post implies that we are in a new American era of "handing out rights," but the USA has a long tradition of balancing competing rights and goals. Some rights and goals are simply greater than English-related or immigration-related goals. If Nashville's mayor can tell in advance that an argument that "English trumps everything" is a loser, I'd say it's not such a bad thing that we have a lawyer as a mayor.

Just ask yourself, what "right" is the charter amendment trying to take away? If the focus of the amendment's ire is that Metro communicates in other languages at times, how does that create a "right"? Such a practice may reflect - but not create - long-standing Constitutional rights related to access to justice, for example, in which case Mayor Dean is correct to see in advance that we'd lose a fight to take away such rights. Or, a Metro department might use other languages simply to enhance its ability to fulfill its mission - seeing better results when using certain foreign languages in communications. Again, that choice by Metro does not create any rights on the part of the user; if anything, it is a convenience to the government and a courtesy to the recipient. So the "rights" language is either Constitutionally unopposable in certain circumstances, or it is a straw man, and in either case Mayor Dean is wise to be troubled by the proximity of such sloppy drafting to our city's charter.

If you see this issue through the eyes of Metro departments, at stake is their power to individually determine whether additional languages will better allow them to implement their missions. Micromanaging those departments by putting an English mandate over the entire city will handicap Metro (and thus all of us, if Metro's goals are our goals) and not just our city's international residents. In an English Forced world, this predetermination of priorities would win the day without any weighing of the costs and benefits in each situation. (And if the charter amendment doesn't make this change, what real practical effect is it supposed to have?) As I've said before, Metro currently implements a variety of multi-lingual communication strategies on topics including legal rights, a child's first day of school, domestic violence, recycling, rape victim resources, financial counseling, Homework Hotline, recidivism-reducing DUI education, pet ownership tips, access to health care, and tornado siren instructions - and none of the agencies responsible for those communications have been quoted in any of the articles on the English Forced movement.

By the way, when you comment about citizenship and English proficiency, why the exclusive focus on citizens? There are more people here than just citizens. Foreign spouses can move here years before they are eligible for citizenship.

Finally, you imply that multiple languages in this country is also a new thing that could cost us dearly ("wait until he sees the bill for this new right.") Germantown in Nashville had German-language church services, schools, and newspapers for decades. At the Centennial Exposition for which Nashville's Centennial Park was created, Nashville's German newspapers were rightly lauded as one of the best methods of integrating new German immigrants, because through communications in their mother tongue they could learn about current events even while they were still uncomfortable in English. It wasn't under WWI, cowered by fear of their fellow Americans' anti-German fervor, when the German language was scrubbed out of Germantown.

If Dean prefers to maintain our city's welcoming tradition instead of yielding to a movement tinged with fear (or worse), maybe our mayor with the law degree studied a little history, too.

Kay Brooks said...

Please, I never said that alternate languages were a new thing. We've been dealing with this since Native Americans and English/French/Spanish settlers arrived in the American Wilderness.

I don't see anything in CM Crafton's charter amendment that says Metro cannot provide some accommodations in other languages (emergency services for example)...only that 'official' business has to be done in English. As I've said before, I foresee legal problems ahead when someone takes a translated version of 'official' business to court. There are nuances in languages that can create unintended consequences.

We can debate what is 'official' if you like but I have never heard a proponent of this amendment say that no emergency services person would be prevented from communicating with a patient in another language.

Your Germantown example was privately done...not an effort by the government to accommodate new immigrants. No one is saying that communities cannot provide native language services for their own.

Why the focus on citizens? Because I believe that if you intend on staying here, for your own safety and well-being, as well as embracing your new neighbors and nation, you should learn English.

Why the focus on citizens? Because Nashville is a welcoming city and we don't expect *visitors* to be proficient in English (or Southern). ;-)