Language Rights Are Protected Under Civil Rights Law
The rights of limited English proficient (LEP) individuals are recognized under core civil rights law. Language is not only a barrier to communication, but also an identifying characteristic of an individual’s ethnicity and national origin.
Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, ancestry, national origin or ethnicity. Section 601 of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination based "on the ground of race, color, or national origin," in "any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Title VI of the Civil Rights Act provides the foundation for ensuring nondiscrimination in all federal programs and services, including those provided to language minorities. Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It prohibits not only intentional discrimination, but also practices that have the effect of discriminating against individuals because of their race, color, national origin, religion, or sex. As a result, a rule requiring that employees speak only English on the job may violate Title VII unless an employer shows that the requirement is necessary for conducting business.
The Supreme Court in Lau v. Nichols affirmed a connection between discrimination based on national origin and language rights. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that because the state did not consider the effect of LEP status on public education, the state had discriminated based on national origin. In support of this concept of language rights, numerous pieces of federal legislation also address the needs of LEPs. Two important examples are the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Bilingual Education Act of 1968.
In addition, Executive Order No. 13166, issued at the end of the Clinton Administration, affirmed the link between language and national origin. Executive Order No. 13166 was issued by President Clinton in 2000 to clarify the scope of the government’s responsibilities with respect to Title VI. Each federal agency is required to examine the services it provides and develop and implement a system by which LEPs can meaningfully access those services consistent with and without unduly burdening the fundamental mission of the agency. The basis for the Order’s mandate for language access services is Title VI’s prohibition against national origin discrimination, which links language discrimination with national origin discrimination. The Bush Administration affirmed the federal government’s commitment to language rights through the Boyd Memorandum from the Department of Justice, which provided guidance for other agencies.
Through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and confirmation of the link between language and national origin by the Supreme Court and the Executive Branch, it is clear that language discrimination is protected against. The rights of LEPs are protected rights and English-only policies only serve to jeopardize those rights.