English Only?

It seems likely the Supreme Court will dismiss a free-speech case it heard last week because of procedural flaws and technicalities. That's too bad. The justices' ruling might have helped define the legal issues involved in the contentious "English only" debate.

The case argued before the court hinges on a constitutional amendment passed in 1988 by Arizona voters. The amendment declares English as the official state language and requires government workers to conduct state business in English. It was immediately challenged as a restriction of free speech by a state worker who often used Spanish in her dealings with clients. The case made its way to a Ninth Circuit panel in San Francisco, which ruled the amendment was a constitutional violation. The Supreme Court later agreed to hear the case.

The debate over English as this country's official language will no doubt continue regardless of the Supreme Court's action. English-only proponents will continue to say that an officially recognized common language encourages national unity. Critics still will say the movement challenges free-speech rights and is an indirect attack on immigrants.

To a certain degree, both sides are right. That's why any official-language legislation that emerges from Congress - one such bill has already passed the House - should be flexible in its application. It should not affect emergency, health, or judicial services. Localities should be given leeway in such matters as voter information. The bill shouldn't target federal backing for bilingual education.

An ethnically diverse country is well served by a unifying official language - which English essentially is, even without new legislation. At the same time, our government should not interfere with, or put a stigma on, anyone's right to speak the language he or she chooses.

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