The debate last year in the Metro Council as to whether or not Nashville should make English the official language of Metro government was an ugly chapter in this city’s history. Unfortunately, it is being repeated.
In a June 6 article, our newspaper revealed that Councilman Eric Crafton is bringing back his “English First” initiative for Metro government. A similar one died at the hands of a mayoral veto last year under Mayor Bill Purcell after passing the Council. This time Mayor Karl Dean will not have that option. Crafton is bypassing the Council and taking the issue directly to voters via a petition drive to get the measure on the ballot in the fall as a public referendum.
Should Crafton’s petition drive make it to a referendum, the forces of common sense and tolerance need to rise up in this city to stop it at the polls.
For clarity, here is what the petition and the proposed change to the Metro charter states:
"English is the official language of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee. Official actions (those which bind or commit the government) shall be taken only in the English language, and all official government communications and publications shall be published only in English. No person shall have a right to government services in any other language. All meetings of the Metro Council, Boards, and Commissions of the Metropolitan Government shall be conducted in English. Nothing in this measure shall be interpreted to conflict with federal or state law."
We cannot in good conscience say limiting Metro government to the use of English in all of its official communications is a good idea from a governance standpoint. The amorphous nature of the amendment and its lack of specificity appears designed to cast the net as broadly as possible when it come to rooting out government communication in anything other than English. Where will it begin and end as a matter of public policy?
For instance, is a lawful order from a law enforcement officer not considered an official communication of government? In fact, this measure has a great potential to handicap crucial services like police, emergency and social services and the courts. Bilingualism by government workers and translation services are something that help ensure the health, safety and welfare of all Metro residents by making key services realistically available to all. Possibly doing away with this is a dangerous boondoggle waiting to happen.
Some have argued that in most instances Metro already communicates with the public in English, and this charter change would simply state that residents do not have a “right” to communication in different languages. It is less a matter of government practice and precedent and much more about the image this city wants to present to the rest of the country about our views as community concerning people of different cultures and nationalities.
Though not spoken of openly by proponents of this ballot measure, it appears simply because of their numbers in the city to be aimed directly at the large, Spanish-speaking Hispanic immigrant population here. It also appears the anger over illegal immigration in this community — some of it justified — is fueling this movement.
Yet, Crafton’s proposed law appears poised to also disenfranchise legal, law-abiding immigrants still perhaps learning the language. Though designed to force assimilation, this proposed “English First” law holds the same ghastly potential that Jim Crow laws accomplished in the first half of the last century, separating a class of people from the rest of society.
It also sends a message that those new to America and searching for this country’s promise of freedom and hope are not welcome in Nashville. As the sons and daughters of immigrants, it is a hypocritical message to send.
Thinking, intelligent people in this community need to stand up and reject this petition and a subsequent ballot measure if the petition succeeds. From the city’s most outspoken liberals to our rock-ribbed members of the party of Lincoln, the reasons to oppose it are plain. It is bad public policy and a poor statement on our community.