Posted on March 20, 2006

Growing Diversity Fuels a War of Words

Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2006

A recent proposal in Hawthorne to require English on most business signs has highlighted growing clashes over language use in workplaces and the public square.

Although sign ordinances like the one pursued in Hawthorne are no longer a central issue — a 1989 federal court ruling sharply curtailed language restrictions — charges of language discrimination on the job and in other areas are on the rise, said Anna Park, an attorney with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Los Angeles office.

Nationally, complaints involving English-only restrictions or language and accent discrimination increased from 74 in 1996 to 336 last year, commission data show. In the Los Angeles district, which covers Southern California, Nevada and Hawaii, 10 charges were filed in the last year, Park said.

One case involves a Spanish-speaking janitor who was fired from a Torrance senior care home with English-only rules, Park said. The home is arguing that the language rules are appropriate under the state’s patient bill of rights, which guarantees “comfortable” care, she said. But the commission believes the rules do not apply to workers, such as janitors, who don’t directly deal with patients, Park said. The commission is suing the home in civil court.

“Particularly in Southern California, minority populations are growing and there’s almost like a backlash,” Park said. “It’s only going to get worse and worse . . . because of the change in population.”

Federal law allows English-only rules solely when needed to promote the “safe or efficient” operation of an employer’s business, according to commission guidelines. Employers may not discriminate against a person’s foreign accent unless it “materially interferes with job performance.”

Rob Toonkel, spokesman for Washington-based U.S. English Inc., said his organization has been concerned about growing reports of other languages supplanting English. Arizona had established a Spanish-only court, he said, and a Florida county commissioners’ meeting was held only in Spanish.


In Los Angeles County, the law requires ballots to be translated into Spanish, Tagalog, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese; keeping the law is one of the top legislative priorities of groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.


As for business signs, Monterey Park, which Asian immigrants transformed into the country’s first suburban Chinatown more than two decades ago, made headlines in 1986 when the city passed an ordinance that required all merchants to post signs in English describing the nature of their businesses.

Three years later a federal court decision struck down a similar Pomona ordinance requiring that business signs with foreign characters devote at least 50% of the space to English characters. The court said the ordinance was an unconstitutional restriction of free speech and a violation of equal protection laws.


Hawthorne Councilwoman Ginny Lambert has a similar goal for her city. It was conceived last month when she drove down the street from her home and saw storefront lettering she couldn’t understand.

“Migun. Camas Terapeuticas. Terapia Gratis,” read the storefront signage on Hawthorne Boulevard and 130th Street.


That’s not good enough for Lambert, however, who made the recent proposal for an ordinance to require that signs for all commercial businesses — with the exception of restaurants — include English. The proposal has been referred to the city Planning Commission for a recommendation.