Language Laws and Related Court Decisions

Dennis Baron

"No person shall be denied services, assistance, or facilities, directly or indirectly provided by the Government solely because that person communicates in English."

from the 1996 Language of Government Act, passed by the House 8/1/96.


From The Cincinnati Enquirer (19 July 1995, Metro B1): The Cincinnati City Council has received a recommendation from the Public Works Department (Committee of Names) that the city display informational signs on twelve area streets which had lost their earlier German names. English Street would thus receive a sign (12 by 18 inch) reading "Formerly German Street, renamed April 9, 1918 because of the anti-German hysteria during WW I."

The streets named (with earlier name in parenthesis): Woodrow (Berlin) St, Republic (Bremen) St, Edgecliff Road (Brunswick Pl), Connecticut (Frankfort) Ave, Stonewall (Hamburg) St, Yukon (Hanover ) St, Merrimac (Hapsburg) St, Taft Road (Humboldt Av), Beredith Pl (Schumann St), Panama (Vienna) St, Orion Av (Wilhelm St).

The German American Citizens League had requested the names of a number of streets be changed back to their original ones.


1923: Washington Jay McCormick tries to make American the official language of the nation. McCormick hoped to "supplement the political emancipation of ‘76 by the mental emancipation of ‘23," and he advised our writers to "drop their top-coats, spats, and swagger-sticks, and assume occasionally their buckskin, moccasins, and tomahawks."

1923: State Sen. Frank Ryan of Illinois proposes a bill to make American the official language of the state of Illinois. Its whereases attack those American Tories "who have never become reconciled to our republican institutions and have ever clung to the tradition of King and Empire." According to Ryan, such Anglophiles foster racism and defeat the attempts of American patriots "to weld the racial units into a solid American nation." The bill, supported by a coalition of Irish and Jewish Chicago politicians out to punish the British for their roles in Ireland and Palestine.

1923: Meyer v. Nebraska (262 US 390). The Nebraska Supreme Court accepted the state’s argument describing "the baneful effects of permitting foreigners who had taken residence in this country, to rear and educate their children in the language of their native land." The Court ruled that such a situation, because it proved "inimical" to the public safety, inculcating in the children of immigrants "ideas and sentiments foreign to the best interests of this country," fell within the police powers of the state.

It agreed as well that the teaching of a foreign language was harmful to the health of the young child: "The hours which a child is able to devote to study in the confinement of school are limited. It must have ample time for exercise or play. Its daily capacity for learning is comparatively small." Such an argument was consistent with the educational theory of the day, which held as late as the 1950s that bilingualism led to confusion and academic failure, and was harmful to the psychological well-being of the child. Indeed, (According to Hakuta [1985, 27], the psychologist Florence Goodenough argued in 1926 that the use of a foreign language in the home was a leading cause of mental retardation.

On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out laws in Nebraska, Ohio, and Iowa forbidding foreign language instruction below the eighth grade on the grounds that such laws interfere with a language instructor’s calling, and with the right of parents to control the education of their children. The Court found a monolingual, English-speaking nation desirable, but rejected illegal means to promote this end. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, upholding the state’s right to dictate curriculum and require English, dissented.

The Attorney General for the State of Nebraska argued, "If it is within the police power of the state . . . to legislate respecting housing conditions in crowded cities, to prohibit dark rooms in tenement houses, to compel landlords to place windows in their tenements which will enable their tenants to enjoy the sunshine, it is within the police power of the state to compel every resident of Nebraska to so educate his children that the sunshine of American ideals will permeate the life of the future citizens of this republic. A father has no inalienable constitutional right to rear his children in physical, moral or intellectual gloom." [Brief and Argument of State of Nebraska, Defendant in Error, 14-15]

In his majority opinion, Associate Justice James Clark McReynolds (later to become known as a rabid opponent of the New Deal, argued, "the protection of the Constitution extends to all,—to those who speak other languages as well as to those born with English on the tongue. Perhaps it would be highly advantageous if all had ready understanding of our ordinary speech, but this cannot be coerced by methods which conflict with the Constitution,—a desirable end cannot be promoted by prohibited means."

1965: Federal Voting Rights Act eliminates English-only qualification for voting.

1969: English replaces American as the official language of the State of Illinois.

1974: Lau v. Nichols (414 US 563); U.S. Supreme Court rules that LESA children (limited English speaking ability) were entitled to some sort of remedial instruction. The Lau decision mandates no specific remedy. Generally used to support bilingual education programs. In its opinion, the Court stated,

"Students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful instruction. . . . We know that those who do not understand English are certain to find their classroom experience wholly incomprehensible and in no way meaningful."

1996: Language of Government Act passed by House, 8/1/96 declares English to be the language of the federal government.

Provisions of the Language of Government Act:

The majority report, after a nod to diversity, declares, "throughout the history of the United States, the common thread binding individuals of differing backgrounds has been a common language. In order to preserve unity in diversity, and to prevent division along linguistic lines, the Federal Government should maintain a language common to all people." English will empower immigrants, and any money saved would go to teaching English to immigrants.

The law adds a chapter to Title 4 of the US Code entitled "Language of the Federal Government." The bill was introduced by the late Bill Emerson (R-MO) in 1995; hearings were held before the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood Youth and Families Oct. 18 and Nov. 1, with only "friendly" witnesses testifying. Majority report of the Committee:

map of us

Alabama (1990)
Alaska (1998)
Arkansas (1987)
California (1986)
Colorado (1988)
Florida (1988)
Georgia (1986 & 1996)
Hawaii (1978)
Illinois (1969)
Indiana (1984)
Iowa (2002)
Kentucky (1984)
Louisiana (1811)
Massachusetts (1975)

Mississippi (1987)
Missouri (1998)
Montana (1995)
Nebraska (1920)
New Hampshire (1995)
North Carolina (1987)
North Dakota (1987)
South Carolina (1987)
South Dakota (1995)
Tennessee (1984)
Utah (2000)
Virginia (1981 & 1996)
Wyoming (1996)

Arizona's 1988 law was overturned by the Arizona Supreme Court in 1998.

Map and table from the US English website

Minority committee report:

Alaskan language specialist: "The common thread has not been a common language but rather to ‘promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity. . . . Division along linguistic lines has only been created historically by Federal Government policy"

Bilingual voting requirements repeal act of 1996: Opposed by Justice Department: "More than our language unites us. We are united as Americans by the principles of tolerance, free speech, representative democracy, and equality under the law. HR 351 contravenes each of these principles." Supporters of repeal claim it is wasteful; defenders of bilingual provisions of the voting rights law demonstrate it is low cost and efficient; its repeal will not increase use of English.

Action taken: passed by House Judiciary Committee (ayes include Mr. Bono, as well as Henry Hyde; testifying in favor of repeal was Ron Rotunda, of the U of I Law School)

In its 1996-97 term, the U. S. Supreme Court will consider Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona (SC no. 95-974).


Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.