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PUC Language Ruling Bad News
by K. Lloyd Billingsley 8/6/07

Last Thursday the California Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously to require telecom companies to serve their customers in multiple languages. Commission president Michael Peevey told reporters, "I'm proud of what we've done," but he shouldn't be. This is a bad decision that shows ignorance of California law, history, and the marketplace.

According to the PUC ruling, landline and wireless phone companies will now have to provide support in any language they use to market their wares. Companies will have the choice of providing contract translations in various ways, including telephone, Internet, or translators. This came billed as helping consumers but it really amounted to a capitulation to activist lawyers. The Hispanic Issues Forum, based in San Francisco, took the lead in lobbying the PUC, an unelected regulatory agency. The PUC gave them most of what they wanted, which is too bad. None of the measures the PUC approved should be required, for good reason. 

K. Lloyd Billingsley
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

K. Lloyd Billingsley is Editorial Director for the Pacific Research Institute and has been widely published on topics including on popular culture, defense policy, education reform, and many other current policy issues. [go to Billingsley index]

In 1983 California voters approved Proposition 63, the California English Language Amendment, making English the official language of California. It passed with 73 percent of the vote, a three-to-one margin and the largest for a ballot initiative in California history to that point. Those who approved the measure included many whose first language is Spanish. The measure prevailed despite high-volume propaganda from professional ethnics and the bilingual lobby, who turned out to be at odds with voters.

That happened again in 1998, when California voters passed Proposition 227 by 61 percent. This initiative effectively banned the bilingual education policies that had been destroying the prospects of students for 30 years. It prevailed despite opposition from all four candidates for governor, Republican and Democrat, major unions, major newspapers and the usual professional ethnics and bilingual lobbyists. The measure carried the day in 56 of 58 counties, even though the losers outspent the winners by 20 to one, and enjoyed free advertising on a Spanish-language television network owned by a billionaire.

These votes should make it clear that Californians favor English. It should also be pointed out that, according to federal law, knowledge of the English language is required for citizenship in the United States, of which California is part.

The telcom companies already offer materials in many languages.  AT&T even offers contracts in Spanish for cellular customers and support in no fewer than seven languages. The PUC ruling is a non-solution in search of a problem, but it will carry negative consequences.

Verizon, also a major carrier, supports more information for those not proficient in English but Michael Bagley, the company's director of public policy, noted that the PUC decision would be "costly and demanding to implement." That means needless expense, higher costs, and fewer deals for all consumers. A market solution would better serve the public, and those of limited English proficiency.

We are not dealing with a monopoly landline carrier but a lively marketplace in which multiple companies compete to offer consumers the best deals and service. Language questions should be left to the companies and consumers to decide what best serves their needs. This does not exhaust the market possibilities.

California boasts many schools that offer English instruction, and financial aid is readily available. Activists would do better to help their clients gain English proficiency instead of lobbying for unnecessary and costly rules that will hurt the very people they claim to be trying to help. Indeed, the PUC ruling is a disincentive for people to learn English. The PUC capitulation will also encourage special-interest activists to press other unreasonable demands before unelected bodies, rather than take them to the people, who have already spoken on the language issue.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, an immigrant whose first language is German, has been after people to learn and speak English. The governor should appoint commissioners with the same commitment to California's official language. CRO

copyright 2007 Pacific Research Institute




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