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Is freedom of speech English-only?

In a twist to the usual debate over speaking Spanish in public, a non-Spanish speaker has sued an Arizona community college, claiming that she was unlawfully suspended from the college after complaining about other students speaking Spanish in the classroom. According to Terri Bennett, a student at Pima Community College, her learning environment was unfairly and significantly disrupted by other students who spoke to each other in Spanish. The issue began when a Spanish-speaking student sat in front of Bennett in class. The student would conduct conversations with another student in Spanish during lectures. Bennett claims this student’s constant talking was a disruption to her.

To add fuel to Bennett’s fire, the students were later placed into study groups, with Bennett’s group consisting mostly of Spanish-speakers. Bennett claims the students in her group spoke to each other mostly in Spanish, which caused her to feel left out of the conversations. When Bennett enrolled in another class the following semester, she encountered the same Spanish-in-the-air experience, which “impeded her ability to concentrate, focus, listen to the lecture, and participate in group studies, skills labs, clinicals, and other learning activities.”  She decided to complain, first to the Spanish speakers directly, but eventually to the Director of the Nursing Program.  According to Bennett, the Director called her a “bigot” and a “bitch” and threatened to suspend her. The events that unfolded led to her suspension from the college.

Bennett proceeded to file a lawsuit, alleging, among other counts, that the college violated the Arizona State Constitution’s designation of English as the official state language and violated Bennett’s freedom of speech. The complaint states that the college failed “to provide a learning environment that was conducive to English-language speakers” and that Bennett was adversely affected “because of her preference for, and right to, being taught in the English language and her inability to understand the Spanish language.”

It’s true that English is the official language of Arizona, which means that government business must be conducted in English. However, there is no law anywhere in our country that prohibits or criminalizes the use of any language in private conversation. The professors were not conducting class in Spanish; the students were having private conversations. Ms. Bennett did not complain about the distraction created by disruptive students; she complained about the distraction of students speaking Spanish.

Has no other student ever spoken English in class and disrupted her before? I wonder why she has not filed any complaints against those students. Bennett’s true concern is that she feels the right to control the language of another person. It may be rude, within the context of a study group, to speak in a language not understood by everyone. And ultimately, this case is about whether the college unlawfully suspended Bennett, not about speaking Spanish in the classroom. But as Bennett alleges that her right to freedom of speech was violated, I have to question if some of us out there think freedom of speech is English-only.



Lissette Diaz is a Cuban-American writer and attorney living and practicing law in New Jersey. She can be reached at


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