What is the legal effect of an English language resolution?
In your county of residence the Board of Commissioners passes a resolution declaring that English is the official language of the county. The purpose, as explained in the resolution, is to encourage proficiency in English, thereby promoting civic and economic participation in society. What is the legal effect of such a resolution?
A number of states, including North Carolina, and localities across the United States have enacted English language laws. The content of these laws varies significantly. The resolution described above states only that English is the jurisdiction’s official language (as does North Carolina’s law). While stating the local government’s preference for English, the resolution does not require its use. Such nonrestrictive and non-regulatory measures are likely to withstand legal challenge.
The enactment of a local ordinance that requires the use of English and prohibits the use of foreign languages may not be authorized under North Carolina law, however. Moreover, such an ordinance may violate state and federal free speech laws. In fact, laws in the states of Alaska, Arizona, and Oklahoma that required government officials to use only English during the performance of all government activity have been struck down. These laws were found to violate the First Amendment rights of elected officials and public employees to communicate with their constituents and the public, and of non-English speaking people to access and participate in government.
Jurisdictions with English language policies must continue to comply with federal obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI prohibits recipients of federal funding from discriminating against people on the basis of national origin, an obligation that includes providing reasonable language assistance to populations with limited English proficiency. Agencies, programs, and services receiving federal funds that fail to comply with these language assistance requirements may violate Title VI. In 2002, for example, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) was found to be in violation of Title VI for such a failure. NCDHHS subsequently entered into a voluntary compliance agreement with the federal government. The agreement requires local agencies overseen by NCDHHS, including the county departments of social services and local health departments, to provide at no cost oral interpretation services to all limited English proficient clients and written translation of important materials in languages encountered on a regular basis.
Jurisdictions with English language policies must also continue to comply with other federal and state laws containing language requirements, such as federal voting laws.