California state senator sends a message on language, discrimination

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Mar 31 17:21:03 UTC 2009

California state senator sends a message on language, discrimination
 Susan Ferriss
sferriss at

Witnessing someone humiliate his uncle for speaking broken English,
says Leland Yee, was a childhood experience that stuck with him. The
memory rushed back, the California state senator said, when the Ladies
Professional Golf Association announced last September that it would
start suspending foreign players – many of them South Koreans – if
they lacked English proficiency. The LPGA backed down from the rule
under a barrage of criticism from Lee, D-San Francisco, and civil
rights groups that argued the idea seemed xenophobic.

Yee now wants to make sure no one else tries to enact such a policy,
at least in California. On Tuesday, the Senate's Judiciary Committee
will review a bill he's introduced to change the state's Jesse Unruh
Civil Rights Act. The proposal makes it illegal to prohibit the use of
any language at a work site without a justified "business necessity."
"It's the right thing to do. It sends a message," Yee said. "You want
to just make it very clear that you cannot discriminate because of

The state's Fair Employment and Housing Act already protects the
language rights of employees of a business, except, again, for
justifiable reasons. By using the civil rights act, Yee's bill would
broaden those protections, he said, for patrons or contract workers at
a work site where they are not direct employees. Female professional
golfers, he noted, are not employees of the LPGA. The bill, for
example, would prohibit a home or a business owner from ordering
landscapers or other workers under contract to stop speaking another
language while on the premises just because the owner doesn't like it.

"Most individuals who speak another language," Yee said, "have had
experience with this." Senate Bill 242 adds the word "language" to the
list of protected characteristics in the civil rights act. Currently,
language is not included with sex, national origin, race, color,
religion, ancestry, disability, medical condition or sexual
orientation. If the LPGA were to go ahead and impose penalties for
players because their English was judged too poor, Yee said, his law
would bar the association from tournaments on California golf courses.
"Speaking English has nothing to do with how you play," Yee said.

He said he hasn't heard of opposition developing to his bill, although
a few business lobbyists have dropped by his office to inquire about
its details. The lobbyists seemed satisfied that the proposal would do
no harm as long as it included specific provisions giving businesses
the freedom to restrict language for business for good reasons, said
Adam Keigwin, Yee's chief of staff.

Keigwin said he also has assured business people that the change
wouldn't take away the right of employers to reject job candidates
because their English is not good enough. The California Chamber of
Commerce has not taken a position on Yee's bill.
SB 242 defines a business necessity as "an overriding legitimate
business purpose," such as safety and efficiency. Imposing language
limits, the proposal also says, would be legal if "an alternative
practice" to restricting language does not exist.

Defining a legitimate business need can be fairly obvious, or it can
be tricky, said Rob Toonkel, spokesman for US English, a Washington,
D.C.-based group.

The organization lobbies for English-only policies, under certain
circumstances, in the workplace and in government.

If Yee's bill guarantees the right of a business to invoke a
legitimate need, Toonkel said, then US English doesn't have a problem
with it.

On the other hand, Toonkel said, he believes that the LPGA "absolutely
had a right" when it tried last year to penalize players if they
didn't improve their English well enough to satisfy corporate sponsors
or give live television interviews.

"The LPGA golfers are the face of the association," Toonkel said. "You
want your package to be as attractive as possible.

"There is less likelihood that you're going to get excited about
someone if they can't answer questions."

David Higdon, LPGA chief communications officer, said the association
has made a firm decision not to suspend limited-English players.
Instead, he said, it will continue helping the women sharpen their
English with tutors and lessons.

"It was a matter of finding ways to help them bridge the gap" and deal
with "the media onslaught" that comes with celebrity, Higdon said of
the short-lived language rule.

For Yee, though, the idea smacked of sheer discrimination against
players struggling to become comfortable with English who were faced
suddenly with a rule no other professional sports league imposes.
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