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Monday, July 17, 2006

Vive le Sterling Heights Libre

How often have you thought that what your hometown needs are language police like they have in Québec? Believe it or not, that's what at least one council member in Sterling Heights, Michigan is advocating. The Detroit News reports:
In May, Councilwoman Barbara Ziarko asked the city's attorney to prepare an ordinance that would require businesses with foreign language signs to have identifiers such as "bakery" or "grocery" included. Fire Department officials were working on a similar requirement at the time, and the city now plans to address the issue through an amendment to the fire code.

Ziarko and Fire Chief John Childs said their concern was public safety.

People passing by the site of a fire or other emergency are better able to inform dispatchers about the location if they can read the signs, they argued.

Almost immediately, critics raised concerns that the proposal was racist and inflammatory during a time of national debate over immigration.

Childs said he has grown frustrated by the perception that the issue has anything to do with race.

"This is about response time," he said.

(entire article here)

I'm skeptical of the public-safety argument. If the address is clearly marked, response time doesn't seem like it should be affected. If foreign signs affect response time, insurance companies would charge higher premia to businesses without English signs, thus incentivizing businesses to include English on their signs without the heavy hand of government.

Aside from the free speech and property rights issues, I can think of a few other problems that this ordinance could cause. Would cafeterias and cantinas have to be re-branded as "coffee shops" and "taverns?" What's the English word for pizzeria? Would Tim Hortons have to put the apostrophe (which it removed to satisfy the Québec language police) back into its logo?

The ACLU of Michigan is urging Sterling Heights to reject the ordinance.

And more importantly, at The Petition Spot, you can sign a petition to put the apostrophe back into Tim Hortons.


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