By Nancy Stetten

I have been a teacher all of my life. For a number of years I taught English to immigrants. I experienced firsthand the frustration of trying to communicate without a common language. I was always impressed though with how difficult it was for the adults to learn English, and how hard they struggled to master it to become better, more informed members of their communities.

Proponents for the English-Only Metro Charter Amendment though, say that by promoting English-Only, communities will be more united under a common language. This makes absolutely no sense. Communities are only made stronger due to their differences and by a willingness to come together despite those differences to make it a better place for everyone. This amendment seeks to divide communities. It is bad policy for Nashville and can send a problematic precedent for the rest of the state.

While early voting for the English-Only Metro Charter Amendment has begun, it is very important to understand what the proposal means and what it is trying to accomplish and why it is bad for the state.

Let’s see what it says sentence by sentence.

“English is the official language of the metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County.”

This language is unnecessary. English is already the “official and legal language of Tennessee.”

“Official actions, which bind or commit the government shall be taken only in the English language.”

Again, unnecessary. All bills and resolutions are already written in English.

“…and all official government communications and publications shall be in English.”

What does this mean? Metro government has taken steps to provide information in languages other than English in cases where it believes that this makes our government function more efficiently. To overrule all of these decisions ties the hands of government workers trying to do their jobs and raises barriers to effective communication.

“No person shall have a right to government services in any other language.”

Our country has fought to get rid of categories of people who are denied rights. Why would we want to deny rights to a new class of people now?

“All meetings of the Metro Council, Boards, and Commissions of the metropolitan Government shall be conducted in English.”

Once again, unnecessary. This is already the case.

“The Metro Council may make specific exceptions to protect public health and safety.”

There are two problems with this. First, getting measures through Metro Council is cumbersome and time consuming. And second, it is impossible to list all of the specific cases which could endanger public health and safety. Misunderstandings over law or intention can rapidly escalate to a violent confrontation. In fact, failure to communicate itself is one of the greatest risks to public health and safety.

“Nothing in this measure shall be interpreted to conflict with federal or state law.”

Saying this does not make it so. In fact, the proposed charter amendment is in conflict with the constitution and federal law. Non-English speaking citizens have a right to government services under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and immigrants over 50 can become citizens even if they don’t know English. There is no doubt that if the English-Only Amendment is passed, it will surely be challenged in court.

A community achieves unity by treating all of its members as equal before the law, not by dividing members into two legal categories -- one receiving government services and the other denying them. At a time when we should be bringing communities together, the English-Only proposal only seeks to tear them apart.
Stetten is a former ESL teacher and a current researcher at the Tennessee Department of Education and a volunteer at Park Avenue Elementary School, where she teaches science and gardening.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Tennessee Editorial Forum. 1/09