Court lets group make its case for English

Posted: Monday, June 19, 2000

ANCHORAGE -- The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that the group Alaskans for a Common Language can defend the state's official English law in court.

The law, approved overwhelmingly by Alaska voters in 1998, requires that most state and local government business in Alaska be conducted in English. It was scheduled to take effect March 4, 1999, but has been on hold pending the outcome of court challenges filed by Native groups.

The groups Alaskans for a Common Language and U.S. English Inc. had asked to present a full-blown defense of the law in the case. Representatives of the groups said they feared state lawyers might not defend the law vigorously because their boss, Gov. Tony Knowles, spoke out against the initiative before it passed, calling it ``unnecessary, unfair and unfortunate.''

State Superior Court Judge Fred Torrisi of Dillingham ruled last year that the groups could file arguments in the case as friends of the court, but would have to rely on the state to defend the law.

But in a ruling handed down Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that Alaskans for a Common Language could participate in the lawsuit.

The high court ruled that sponsors of the initiative, Ken Jacobus and Susan Fischetti, ``cannot be faulted for wanting to guarantee that the initiative is defended zealously.''

The justices said that every decision made by the attorney general's office in defending the law might be questioned and second-guessed by supporters of the initiative.

The high court ruled that the national group, U.S. English, had not established a direct interest in the lawsuit and could not participate.

The ruling clears the way for legal challenges to the law to proceed.

Two lawsuits were filed last year against the new law -- one by a group of residents from the village of Togiak and one by the Native American Rights Fund. The lawsuits were consolidated.

In its lawsuit, the village of Togiak said trying to function without the use of Yupik would make local governing nearly impossible. Supporters of the law say it exempts Native languages.

Heather Kendall Miller, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, says the law violates the First Amendment right to free speech.

But state attorneys argued that the ``vague'' nature of the initiative does not chill free speech because it does not include any penalties.

The law provides exemptions allowing for the use of other languages to communicate health and safety information; to teach foreign languages; to teach English to students with limited English skills; to promote international relations and tourism; and to allow elected officials to communicate with constituents.

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