The New York Civil Liberties Union has informed the Town of Jackson that a recently enacted local ordinance requiring all official town business to be conducted exclusively in English violates free speech rights and should be rescinded.
In a letter sent late yesterday to Town Supervisor Alan Brown, the NYCLU maintains that the English-only ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution, New York State Constitution, as well as state and federal law. It asks the Town Board to rescind the ordinance, which was approved on March 3.
“The English language is not under attack in Jackson or anywhere else in the state or country,” said Melanie Trimble, director of the NYCLU’s Capital Region Chapter. “This misguided law prohibits a vast array of constitutionally protected speech and unfairly discriminates against anyone with limited English skills who tries to conduct business with the town; whether they wish to report a crime or testify in local court, speak to a school official about their child’s education or obtain a building permit.”
The ordinance infringes on the First Amendment rights of elected officials, town employees, residents and visitors in a wide variety of ways. For example, it prevents the town’s elected representatives and their appointees from communicating with constituents who do not speak English; keeps citizens from accessing critical government information; and even impedes tourists from obtaining advice or directions from town officials. The ordinance additionally violates core constitutional rights of due process and equal protection under the law. It contains no exceptions for situations, such as medical emergencies and police investigations, in which public health and safety are at stake.
The NYCLU maintains that the ordinance violates Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 by excluding people who are not fluent in English from accessing important federally funded town services, such as medical aid, public education services and police protection. The NYCLU has informed town officials that it will notify the U.S. Department of Justice of the town’s Title VI violations unless concrete actions are taken to rescind the ordinance.
“This misguided ordinance promotes intolerance and invites litigation,” Trimble said. “It is yet another symptom of anti-immigrant hostility that has swept the country in recent years, and demonstrates the urgent need for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform that respects everyone’s rights and dignity.”
Only three states – Alaska, Arizona and Oklahoma – have attempted to pass or enforce restrictive English-only laws similar to Jackson’s ordinance. In each case, courts invalidated the laws for violating constitutionally protected speech.