Friday, March 16, 2012

Free speech, literally

Rick Santorum on the prospect of letting Puerto Rico becomes a state:

“Like any other state, there has to be compliance with this and any other federal law,” Santorum told the paper, according to Reuters. “And that is that English has to be the principal language. There are other states with more than one language, such as Hawaii, but to be a state of the United States, English has to be the principal language.”

I'll give him credit for the compliance with federal law part. He could have easily gone all 10th amendment on us and waxed frothily about the inherent value of state sovereignty. Though I doubt I'd have to wait more than a week to find a quote from him doing so. Anyway, I'm not sure what he means with the whole English as the principle language thing and it's relation to compliance with federal law.

Does federal law really dictate that states have English be their principle language? I thought Republicans liked to push for some kind of law or amendment that says English is the national language. Why would they do that if federal law already said such a thing, as Santorum suggests? Who the hell knows with these guys. When they aren't outright lying they are pulling stuff out of thin air. What I want to focus on is whether it would be necessary for Puerto Rica to make English their official or principle language, and whether our Constitution would even allow Congress to mandate such a thing.

I'll take the practical route first since it's the easiest. Obviously, in order to be a state just like all the others, Puerto Rico would have to engage in communication with those states and the federal gov't. And since the vast majority of the people they would have to communicate with speak only English, they would either have to be able to speak English or get a lot of interpreters. (Hey, there's an opportunity for a politician to say they created jobs by making Puerto Rico a state. You're welcome, politicians.) We wouldn't need the federal gov't to mandate that Puerto Rico does this. The free market would force them to comply. And being a conservative, this should be the route Santorum wants to go.

Constitutionally, I don't really see how we could pass a national language law or amendment. First of all, it's unnecessary. And second, the 1st amendment ensures that we can speak how we want and say want we want when we choose to speak. If you want to speak English or Spanish you are free to do so. What if a majority of people within a majority of states all of the sudden decided that speaking Spanish or German was more fun than speaking English and changed their primary languages? Would anyone argue that they don't have the right to do that? At that point the rest of the nation would have to adapt to that change and either learn those languages or get a bunch of translators (another job creation opportunity).

But if Santorum and Republicans had their way, this couldn't happen. They would be mandating that people had to speak one specific language as their primary language. And that would be an instance of the gov't abridging our freedom of speech. They could claim that the gov't has a legitimate or compelling interest in keep one language, the one that the vast majority of the population already speaks, the primary language. And economically I think they would have a legitimate interest. But I don't think there would be a compelling gov't interest. The fact is that people could adapt to a change in primary language. Or more likely, the minority of people speaking a different primary language than English will adapt and this won't be an issue.

What this is really about is conservative xenophobia. Santorum knows that conservatives are distrustful of people who speak languages other than English. So he thinks he can score some political points by letting people know he would mandate that everyone has to speak English as their primary language. And conservatives are xenophobic because their identity is completely wrapped up in the way things were, or the way they were raised to do things. Any change or even threat of change is viewed as a personal attack. That's why we get ridiculous things like English as the national language. Nostalgia is more important to them than everyone else's freedom.

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