Supreme Court Hears Arguments Today on English-Only Rule and Censorship of Prisoners

January 16, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON–The U.S. Supreme Court will hear two important civil rights arguments today. In the first, the Justices will consider whether Alabama may refuse to accommodate driver’s license applicants who do not read English; the second case looks at whether prison officials may censor prisoner communications that are critical of its employees.

The American Civil Liberties Union joined the brief in the English-only case, Alexander v. Sandoval, No. 99-1908, and joined a friend-of-the-court brief in Shaw v. Murphy, No. 99-1613, the prisoners’ right case.

In the Alabama case, Martha Sandoval was barred from taking a driver’s license test because the state refuses to accommodate applicants who do not read English. The state claims that private parties may not sue to enforce regulations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act that prohibit practices that have a discriminatory effect. Title VI bars discrimination by recipients of federal dollars.

“This is a case about whether victims of governmental discrimination deserve to have their day in court,” said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the ACLU. “In the 1960’s, Alabama officials stood in front of the schoolhouse door and declared, ‘whites only,’ today, the state is standing in front of the courthouse doors and saying ‘English only.'”

Ironically, until recently Alabama accommodated a wide variety of non-English speakers. From the 1970s to 1991, Alabama administered the driver’s exam in 14 different languages, including Spanish.

Currently, Alabama provides special accommodations to illiterate applicants, handicapped applicants, out-of-state drivers with valid licenses and even foreign nationals with valid licenses. In addition, Alabama uses international traffic signals that enable comprehension with little or no understanding of the English language.

In Shaw v. Murphy, the court will consider whether a state-prison inmate has a First Amendment right to communicate with another state-prison inmate information for use in the other’s criminal trial about abuse by a prison guard.

The prisoner in the case, Kevin Murphy, wrote to another prisoner informing him that a prisoner guard who had accused that prisoner of assault had himself engaged in serious misconduct. Prison officials intercepted the letter and punished Murphy for sending it.

“To legitimize such retaliatory punishment would further institutionalize a culture of impunity within prisons,” the ACLU’s National Prison Project said in a friend-of-the-court brief submitted along with the Legal Aid Society, Human Rights Watch and the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The speech that the prison punished, the brief said, is at the core of First Amendment protection. The prison disciplined Murphy “because of the contents of his letter, and without any findings that the information was false, malicious or intended to harass the staff,” according to the brief.

The brief noted that the government may limit prison speech in ways that are reasonably related to legitimate and neutral interests. But the Court has never upheld the type of restriction presented here, in which discipline is imposed solely because the speech was critical of prison staff.

In 1999, a unanimous 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled in Murphy’s favor, concluding that “the Prison’s conduct here constitutes an ‘exaggerated response.” The Ninth Circuit’s opinion is online at no=9735989.

The Murphy brief is online at Jeffrey Renz, a law professor at the University of Montana in Missoula, is arguing the case before the Justices. Daniel L. Greenberg and John Boston of the Legal Aid Society are counsel of record in Shaw v. Murphy, joined by Mary Lynne Werlwas, also of the Legal Aid Society based in New York; Elizabeth Alexander, Margaret Winter and David C. Fathi of the ACLU’s National Prison Project based in Washington, D.C.; Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch, based in New York; and Stephen Bright and Tamara Serwer of the Southern Center for Human Rights based in Atlanta.

The brief in the Sandoval case is online at The case was brought by Richard Cohen and Rhonda Brownstein of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), in cooperation with Eric Schnapper of the University of Washington School of Law based in Seattle (who will argue the case); Elizabeth Kleinberg and Rohit Nepal of SPLC, based in Montgomery, Alabama; Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the national ACLU, based in New York; Edward Chen, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California; and Christopher Ho of the Employment Law Center based in San Francisco.

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