Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

¿Por Qué No Podemos Leer En la Biblioteca?: Questioning the Application of Official English Legislation to Public Libraries

Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

¿Por Qué No Podemos Leer En la Biblioteca?: Questioning the Application of Official English Legislation to Public Libraries

Article excerpt


At least forty-seven million people, or eighteen percent of those living in the United States, speak a language other than English at home.1 The two most commonly spoken languages in the home, other than English, are Spanish and Chinese.2 These numbers are increasing, but the reality of the United States as a multilingual society is not a new one,3 nor is it new that U.S. citizens and the government have expressed concern about and opposition to a multilingual society.4 Groups advocating English as the official language of the United States are powerful lobbying forces that have achieved some success.5 Twenty-seven states now recognize English as their official language.6

The growing number of foreign-language speakers in the United States has increased the demand for information and literature in a variety of languages. Library collections often include books, magazines, and newspapers in foreign languages. Hundreds of libraries in at least forty states, including states with English as the official language, provide information in Spanish on their websites and on their shelves.7 The demand for foreign-language materials in public libraries has been high for several decades; for example, when Los Angeles' Chinatown Branch opened in 1977, all 500 Chinese-language books were checked out on the first day.8

While no legislation has expressly forbidden foreign-language collections, libraries have drawn criticism for providing these materials.9 In Denver, Colorado, the public library system recently proposed seven "Language and Learning" branches to address the growing needs of its large Hispanic population.10 Denver, which is thirty-five percent Hispanic,11 also offers English conversation groups and Spanish-language G.E.D. courses at its public libraries.12 Such services are not limited to cities with large populations of language minorities.13 In Iowa City, Iowa, which is less than three percent Hispanic,14 the public library offers introductory internet classes for Spanish speakers as well as English conversation groups and other educational programs.15

This Note analyzes the effect and constitutionality of English-only laws when they are used to limit library collections to English-language materials. No cases deal directly with English-only legislation as applied to libraries, but such laws and the outcomes of cases dealing with their validity in other situations have important implications for libraries. Part II of this Note will contrast the arguments for and against English-only legislation. Part III will then analyze the purposes of libraries and the varied state and individual interests involved to conclude that using English-only legislation to diminish libraries' ability to provide foreign-language materials would violate the Equal Protection and First Amendment rights of language minorities.


Before analyzing how English-only legislation may affect public libraries, it is important to understand the rationale behind English-only legislation and the prevalence of such legislation. This Part will look first at the current status of English-only laws at the state and federal level. This Part will then discuss the main arguments for and against such legislation.

A. The Status of English-Only Legislation

The United States is a nation of immigrants from all over the world; therefore, English has never been the only language spoken within its territories.16 Because of this history, the fight for language rights in the United States is an old one.17 At one time, Native Americans were forbidden from speaking their native languages.18 Slave owners often subjected slaves to similar rules.19 Today, English-only statutes exist in several forms, ranging from the symbolic to the highly restrictive.

1. English-Only Legislation in the States

As noted above, more than half of the states now recognize some form of English-only legislation.20 Often, states that pass English-only legislation already have a high number of language minorities; Arizona, California, and Florida are examples of such states. …

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