A Look at English-Only Laws Across the US

Immigration, Rights

With the recent actions of three New York cities, the debate about English-only legislation is heating up.

The basic concept of English-only legislation is that all business must be conducted in English. This means that all official meetings and business–from town hall meetings to police investigations and from testifying in court to getting a building permit–must be done in English and in no other language. Proponents of the law say it helps to protect the English language, while detractors claim it’s a way to silence minorities and prohibit free speech.

Numerous cities weigh the pros and cons of English-only legislation

Jackson, New York, a town with a population of just 1,718 recently made national news when passing their own law defining English as the town’s official language. Council member Roger Meyer said the reason for pushing this legislation through was to encourage the Federal Government to follow suit, making English the official national language.

According to the New York Times, Meyer said:

“For too long, the federal government has shirked its duty by not passing English as the official language of the United States,” said Mr. Meyer, 76, a Town Council member and retiree who runs Chains Unlimited, a sawmill and chain saw and logging supply company. “So seeing as this law couldn’t be passed from the top down, I felt I’d start a grass-roots movement to try to get it passed from the bottom up.”

Since the town of Jackson passed the law, nearby New York town Argyle adopted similar legislation and Easton, New York is also considering following in the neighbor’s footsteps. Easton is expected to pass the law at some point in June.

English-only laws are nothing new

While these three New York cities are the most recent to garner attention for English-only legislation, the truth is these laws date back many years. In fact, about 30 U.S. cities currently have English –only legislation on their books.

Some of these cities include:

  • Albertville, Alabama
  • Hazelton, Pennsylvania
  • Farmers Branch, Texas
  • Carpentersville, Illinois
  • Fort Smith, Arkansas,
  • Green Bay, Wisconsin

Most cities that have adopted these laws have been sued, and some have been coerced into altering their law once federal judges deemed parts of their legislation unconstitutional.

Some say English-only law offers all benefits and no drawbacks

With about 30 cities having adopted English-only laws, it’s not surprising that officials in these cities have been singing the praises of the controversial legislation.

“Over 32 new Hispanic-owned businesses have moved into Hazleton, and our Hispanic population continues to grow here, so I have not seen an adverse effect on creating the law,” said Mayor Lou Barletta in a phone interview with WSMV.com.

When passing English-only legislation in Albertville, Alabama, Mayor Lindsey Lyons said the ordinance would prove to be a “unifying factor” and that “it will greatly enhance” the quality of life for Hispanics who don’t know English by helping them learn the language.

English-only legislation rejected elsewhere

While many cities debate English-only legislation, it’s clear that not all voters support such a proposal. In January 2009, voters in Nashville, Tennessee voted down a proposition for English-only law. The proposition lost by 41,752 votes to 32,144. If the law would have passed, Nashville—with a population hovering around 600,000–would have become the largest U.S. city to make English the official law of local government.

The legislation was actually approved by officials back in 2007, but then-Mayor Bill Purcell vetoed it. He said the English-only law would make the city “less safe, less friendly, and less successful.” Current Mayor Karl Dean was against the most current 2009 proposition.

Arguments for and against English-only laws

This legislation has strong groups of supporters and detractors. While there are a number of intricacies to these arguments, here are the basic cases made by each side.

Supporting arguments

  • Encourages immigrants to learn English
  • Saves hundreds of thousands on translation services for government business
  • Promotes unity
  • Protects the English language

Detracting Arguments


  • Restricts free speech
  • Discriminates against minorities who don’t speak English
  • Divides instead of promoting unity
  • Depresses economic activity by driving away minority-owned businesses

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, one thing is clear: The debate will continue to rage on for the foreseeable future. It’s sure to be an interesting ride.