Nashville voters to decide on foreign language ban in November

Saturday, August 23, 2008

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A petition drive to ban the use of foreign languages in Nashville's official communications and publications has gathered enough signatures to be placed on the November ballot.

K.C. McAlpin, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit ProEnglish, said if voters approve the referendum, Nashville would become the largest city ever to pass such a measure. Nashville has about 600,000 residents.

Councilman Eric Crafton sponsored the petition drive, which spent about $20,000 contacting voters through automated phone calls and postcards, an unusually organized effort for the city.

Crafton initially refused to disclose the source of the funding, but McAlpin said this week his group gave about $19,000 to "Nashville English First."

McAlpin said he contacted Crafton after a similar ordinance he had sponsored was vetoed by former mayor Bill Purcell, who called it unconstitutional, unnecessary and mean-spirited.

"Mr. Crafton said something about taking it to the people, so we got in touch with him and said 'If you do, we'd be willing to help,'" McAlpin said.

The referendum proposes to amend Nashville's charter to specify that the city's official actions, communications and publications could be in English only.

Crafton defended using a national advocacy group to fund the effort.

"They have more money than just regular people to spend," he said. "They supported our campaign. I'm glad they did."

In all, Crafton's "Nashville English First" group collected just more than 12,500 signatures. It needed 10,103 valid signatures of registered voters to qualify for the ballot.

Even before learning on Friday that the group had met that threshold, opponents began organizing under the name "Nashville for All of Us."

Immigrant advocates have joined with business groups to oppose the measure.

The coalition includes the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, which fears the ordinance could hurt the city's economic growth, especially when it comes to recruiting and retaining international companies.

Debby Dale Mason, chief community action officer with the Chamber, said some damage may already have been done.

"Before, when this was brought up (in the Council), it was reported around the world," she said. "It may have already colored the image of Nashville."

Mayor Karl Dean made a special appearance at the Metro Council earlier this month to make clear his opposition to the foreign language ban, saying it could hurt tourism, business and Nashville's large refugee community.

"While the initiative is called English First, to be clear, the language of the amendment is so broad that it would restrict all government communications to English only," he said. ..."The negative consequences of this amendment are very real and substantial."

Crafton calls the amendment a "common sense" measure that will force immigrants to learn English.

"It's not the government's job to hold everybody's hand through every phase of life," he said.

Some opponents are hoping a legal technicality will keep the measure off the ballot altogether. And the Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said her group is prepared to challenge the measure if it does make the ballot.

If that happens, McAlpin says his group is ready to help defend it in court.

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