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Anderson testifies about limitations of English-only law

Terminology and intent come under fire at hearing

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 30 2001 3:36 p.m. MST

Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson conducts numerous government functions in numerous languages. He often speaks at cultural festivals, and his sentiments are translated into languages such as Bosnian, Croatian and Spanish. His letters to community members are mailed in at least three languages. And he always has a Spanish translator on hand at his roving "Saturday Morning With the Mayor" events.

If Anderson were prohibited from such actions by Utah's so-called English-Only Law, he says his constituents would be at a loss.

"If this law were in effect, I simply would not have any idea as to what we could and could not do as far as communicating in languages other than English," Anderson testified Tuesday morning at the beginning of a two-day hearing to determine the constitutionality of the voter-approved official English law.

The initiative was supposed to become law on Dec. 3, 2000, but 3rd District Judge Ronald Nehring issued a restraining order that expired Jan. 30.

Along with state Sen. Pete Suazo, the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Utah Multicultural Legal Center, Anderson is one of nine plaintiffs challenging the law they say violates free speech rights, the right to petition government and equal protection of the law.

The initiative, passed Nov. 7, makes English the sole language in which state and local governments can conduct business, with exceptions for health and safety needs, court proceedings, economic development and tourism events such as the Olympics.

Assistant Attorney General Jerrold Jensen said Tuesday it is the term "sole language" that gives the state pause.

"The exceptions are so numerous as to render the phrase void," said Jensen, who represents defendants Gov. Mike Leavitt, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and the state of Utah.

Jensen defended the constitutionality of the statute and says he welcomes the lawsuit as a way to clarify the law.

The suit, filed in November by the American Civil Liberties Union, asks that the law either be nullified or declared merely symbolic.

In his opening statement, attorney Milo Steven Marsden said the future of the statute essentially rests in the hands of Nehring.

"It is primarily going to turn on your honor's interpretation of the statute," Marsden told Nehring.

Meantime, Nehring questioned the use of the term "official."

"Is it good public policy to permit only English statements to bear the dignity of the label 'official'?" Nehring asked. "It appears to me that by attempting to limit the official communication of government to English that there is an effort being made to give an incentive to non-English speakers to develop English facility."

Lisa Watts Baskin, attorney for the organization Utahns for Official English, said the statute does not force non-English speakers to learn English. Under the law, non-English speakers will not have access to official documents but will be allowed access to translated summarized versions, she said.

"The purpose of this is not to subjugate and divide but to unite," Baskin said.

The hearing is scheduled to continue through Wednesday. In addition to Anderson, Marsden plans to call former San Juan County Commissioner Mark Maryboy, who used his native Navajo language as commissioner, and Salt Lake resident Alicia Alvarez, who has limited English capacity.

Expert witnesses will include language professors from Brigham Young University and the University of Utah to testify about the damaging effects of the statute on Utah's minority community.


E-MAIL: awelling@desnews.com

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