Can you read the signs? Language issues resurface

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Mar 31 13:49:26 UTC 2006

>>From the Seattle Times,
Thursday, March 30, 2006 - 12:00 AM


Can you read the signs? Language issues resurface

By Teresa Watanabe
Los Angeles Times

A dispute in one California city illustrates what is shaping up to be a
national political issue as immigrants press their rights and opponents
stand up for English as the national tongue. A recent proposal in
Hawthorne, Calif., to require English on most business signs has
highlighted growing clashes over language use in workplaces and the public
square. Although such ordinances are no longer a central issue a 1989
federal court ruling sharply curtailed language restrictions charges of
language discrimination on the job and elsewhere are on the rise, said
Anna Park, an attorney with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission's Los Angeles office.

Nationally, complaints involving English-only restrictions or language
discrimination increased from 74 in 1996 to 336 last year, commission data
show. In the Los Angeles district, which covers Southern California,
Nevada and Hawaii, 10 charges were filed in the past year, Park said. One
case involves a Spanish-speaking janitor who was fired from a Torrance,
Calif., senior care home with English-only rules, Park said. The home is
arguing that the language rules are appropriate under the state's patient
bill of rights, which guarantees "comfortable" care, she said. But the
commission believes the rules do not apply to workers such as janitors,
who don't directly deal with patients, Park said. The commission is suing
the home in civil court. "Particularly in Southern California, minority
populations are growing and there's almost like a backlash," Park said.
"It's only going to get worse and worse ... because of the change in

Safety first

Federal law allows English-only rules solely when needed to promote the
"safe or efficient" operation of an employer's business, according to
commission guidelines. Employers may not discriminate against a person's
foreign accent unless it "materially interferes with job performance." Rob
Toonkel, spokesman for U.S. English Inc., said his organization has been
concerned about growing reports of other languages supplanting English.
Arizona had established a Spanish-only court, he said, and a Florida
county commissioners' meeting was held only in Spanish. "We're starting to
see a de facto second language crop up, which is never how the U.S.
developed," said Toonkel, whose group advocates restrictions on foreign
languages in the public square as well as more funding for classes in
English as a second language.

In what is shaping up to be a major political issue, U.S. English Inc. is
opposing reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act's bilingual ballot
requirements, which are set to expire next year. Keeping the law is one of
the top legislative priorities of groups such as the Mexican American
Legal Defense and Education Fund. Most efforts to restrict foreign
languages mask "the real intention, which is to deal with resentment
toward non-English-speaking newcomers," said John Trasvina, a senior vice
president for law and policy for the fund.

He said the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed constitutional protections to
speakers of all languages in a 1923 case striking down local laws banning
German lessons in the classroom rules adopted during rabid anti-German
sentiment stemming from World War I. As for business signs, Monterey Park,
Calif., which Asian immigrants transformed into the country's first
suburban Chinatown more than two decades ago, made headlines in 1986 when
the city passed an ordinance that required all merchants to post signs in
English describing the nature of their businesses. Three years later, a
federal court decision struck down a similar Pomona, Calif., ordinance
requiring that business signs with foreign characters devote at least 50
percent of the space to English characters. The court said the ordinance
was an unconstitutional restriction of free speech and a violation of
equal protection laws.

The ruling required public agencies to show a "compelling government
interest" before imposing language requirements and then ordered that they
be narrowly drawn to address the problem, according to Bonnie Tang, an
attorney with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles.
Several cities today argue that some English on business signs is
necessary for public safety. What if there were a fire or shooting and
bystanders couldn't read the signs to report the trouble? Such arguments
helped Monterey Park and Temple City, Calif., reach a compromise with
their business communities to render establishments' names and addresses
in the Roman alphabet and Arabic numerals used in English. Hawthorne
Councilwoman Ginny Lambert has a similar goal for her city. It was
conceived last month when she drove down the street from her home and saw
storefront lettering she couldn't understand.

"Migun. Camas Terapeuticas. Terapia Gratis," read the storefront signage
on Hawthorne Boulevard and 130th Street. Migun is the name of a Korean
massage-bed business. The rest of the words tout, in Spanish, free
treatment with therapeutic beds. The business uses mostly Spanish because
95 percent of the store's customers are Hispanic, owner Joy Lee explained
in perfectly understandable English. "If you don't speak Spanish, you
can't sell anything," said Lee, a native of Korea. She cheerfully added:
"Whoever speaks English, we can still help you, no problem."

Where she stands

That's not good enough for Lambert, however, who made the recent proposal
for an ordinance to require that all commercial signs with the exception
of restaurants' include English. The proposal has been referred to the
city Planning Commission for a recommendation. The veteran councilwoman,
who says she doesn't have a biased bone in her 73-year-old body, said her
Italian immigrant grandfather and father prospered here by reaching out to
all customers in English cutting hair and repairing shoes for a celebrity
clientele that included Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple. Why shouldn't
all immigrants have similar opportunities, she asks. "I'm trying to reach
out to all nationalities and help them and help the city," Lambert said.

In the community of 88,000 mostly white, black and Hispanic residents,
Hawthorne City Manager Rick Prentice seemed decidedly unenthusiastic about
Lambert's proposal. He said that only a handful of the city's 5,000-plus
businesses appeared to display foreign-language-only signs and that he did
not believe it was government's job to dictate content. "This is an issue
for the business owner," he said. "I think it offends people to be told
we're trying to interfere with whatever business plan they have."

Merchants weigh in

But Lambert's proposal seemed to win backing from at least some of the
multicultural mix of merchants on Hawthorne Boulevard: Paramjit Singh, a
clerk at his brother's Fiji Indian Market who wore the turban of his Sikh
faith; Ruth Overton, a Belize native and owner of Heavenly Body Skincare;
and Gerald White, an African American barber at Coast Barber Shop. "If
there's something people need, how are they going to know what's in the
store if the sign's not in English?" Singh said. Said White, "You come
here, you've got to speak our language."

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