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Nashville voters reject 'English First' proposal

Friday, January 23, 2009 , Posted by Linda at 10:34 AM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Nashville voters rejected a proposal on Thursday that would have made it the largest U.S. city to require that all government business be done in English.

A yard sign encouraging people to vote against an amendment that would require A yard sign encouraging people to vote against an amendment that would require all city work to be done

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, unofficial results showed the "English First" proposal losing with about 57 percent of voters against it and 43 percent in favor. Proponents said using one language would have united the city and saved money, but business leaders, academics and the city's mayor worried it could give the city a bad reputation. Similar measures have passed elsewhere.

"The results of this special election reaffirms Nashville's identity as a welcoming and friendly city, and our ability to come together as a community," Mayor Karl Dean said in a news release.

The referendum's leader, city Councilman Eric Crafton, had promoted it as a way to unite Nashville and prevent the kind of extensive translation services — and the associated expenses — provided by cities like New York or Los Angeles. He has pushed for English only since 2006 and got the issue before voters through a petition drive.

"I support the collective wisdom of the voters. I am not going to bring English up again because the people of Nashville have spoken," Crafton said during a phone interview late Thursday.

It wasn't clear exactly how much translation would have been silenced had the measure passed. While it called for all government communication and publications to be printed in English, it would have allowed an exception for public health and safety.

The only documented expenditure is for Monterey, Calif.-based Language Line Services, which provides phone interpretations in 176 languages. Expenses for the service have totaled $522,287 since 2004. By comparison, the special election cost $300,000.

Nearly one in five registered voters cast ballots Thursday, a high turnout for a special election in Nashville. A total of 73,896 people cast ballots, compared with 51,484 people who voted in the last special election in 2005.

Supporter Glenda Paul, 35, said as she exited a voting precinct Thursday that having one language is an important part of keeping government small.

"If I moved to France to start a business, I would be expected to speak French and that doesn't mean that I am not welcome there. It just means I need to respect the language."

But Claire King, 31, who lives in East Nashville, said Thursday that she voted against the amendment because "it sends a message of intolerance."

The debate over establishing a national language is centuries old.

In 1780, John Adams proposed to the Continental Congress an academy be created to "purify, develop, and dictate usage of" English, the American Civil Liberties Union reports. His proposal was rejected as undemocratic.

Thirty states, including Tennessee, and at least a dozen cities have declared English their official language, said K.C. McAlpin, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based ProEnglish which contributed at least $19,000 to support the referendum. Opponents collected about $300,000.

About 10 percent of Nashville's nearly 600,000 people speak a language other than English in their homes, according to census data. The city is 5 percent Hispanic and home to the nation's largest Kurdish community and refugees from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

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