Tuesday, March 26, 2002

Judge Strikes Down Alaska's Official English Law

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Alaska government officials will not be required to substitute English for Yup'ik, Inupiaq or any of the other native languages sometimes used in their daily business under a ruling issued by a state judge. 

Superior Court Judge Fred Torrisi of Dillingham has ruled the state's official-English initiative, passed overwhelmingly by voters in 1998, violates the free speech rights guaranteed in the Alaska constitution. 

In a ruling signed on Friday and released by the court on Tuesday, Torrisi said arguments made by Alaska natives seeking to overturn the law confirmed ``what the philosophers tell us: language is the beginning, it is part of who we are. Beyond defining our ethnicity, it organizes our minds.'' 

The 1998 initiative was passed by about 70 percent of the voters, putting Alaska among about two dozen states to pass an official-English law. The law did not go into effect because the legal challenge came almost immediately. 

Torrisi's ruling was important because it made Alaska the second state, after Arizona, where a court has struck down the official-English mandate, Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, said. 

Torrisi rejected arguments by the state and by the initiative sponsors, a group called Alaskans for a Common Language, that mandating English for all government operations would improve efficiency. 

``If you happen to have a Filipino seeking to register a snow machine at a DMV (department of Motor Vehicles) office where the worker actually speaks the right dialect, how is it efficient to have her restricted to the use of English?'' Torrisi wrote in his ruling, which also covered languages spoken by immigrants. Alaska has Filipino communities in coastal towns. 

The decision came in a lawsuit filed in 1999 by the elected officials from Togiak, a Yupik Eskimo village in southwestern Alaska where most village affairs are conducted in the native Yup'ik language. Other Alaska natives and non-English speakers joined in the lawsuit, along with the North Slope Borough, where Inupiaq is spoken. 

Natives make up about 16 percent of Alaska's population of more than 600,000 inhabitants, and, particularly in some parts of western Alaska, the use of native languages is common. 

Legal groups representing the plaintiffs, which included the Native American Rights Fund and the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, hailed Torrisi's ruling. 

But backers of the initiative plan to appeal. 

Ken Jacobus, an organizer of Alaskans for a Common Language and the attorney for the group said the ruling was no surprise because the court venue in Dillingham, a population center for southwestern Alaska, was close to Togiak. 

``We kind of expected to lose at the trial court level,'' he said.