By Ryan McMaken*
The Associated Press reported last week that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is suing the Albertsons grocery store chain in federal court over limits placed on employees as to when they may speak Spanish on the job.
The specifics of the case are less clear-cut than the headlines suggests. The lawsuit alleges that the company adopted a stance in which management “suggested … it’s best if workers refrain from speaking Spanish in front of workers who do not speak the language.”
The EEOC alleges, however, that this admittedly flexible policy was enforced too aggressively and applied only to employees of Hispanic origin.
In other words, the real problem, according to the EEOC, is that a hostile work environment was created for a certain subset of Spanish speakers. It’s not really a case of a blanket prohibition on Spanish.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that Albertsons did impose a blanket “no Spanish” policy on employees.
That assumption, after all, seems to already be driving numerous articles in the media. Tucker Carlson, for example, has used the Albertsons suit as an occasion to advocate for a mandated national official language in the United States. Apparently unaware that Switzerland exists (with its four official languages), Carlson maintains that any country without a single official language will be torn asunder by civil strife. (Carlson also ignores the fact that the US has a long history of linguistic diversity, and ten percent of the US population in 1920 reported a “mother tongue” other than English.)
At the other end of the spectrum is Raul Reyes’s article in The Hill which is mostly just a pro-immigration article, but which states: “Speaking whatever language we choose is one of the hallmarks of our democratic, free society…Our country gives people the freedom and right to speak whatever language they choose.”
But do people really have a “right” to choose the language they use?
Well, as Murray Rothbard points out, that depends on the situation. Specifically, it depends on whether the person in question is on his own property or not, and whether or not he acts with the approval of the owner. In Man Economy and State, Rothbard explained how “freedom of speech” cannot be separated from property rights:
Freedom of speech is supposed to mean the right of everyone to say whatever he likes. But the neglected question is: Where? Where does a man have this right? He certainly does not have it on property on which he is trespassing. In short, he has this right only either on his own property or on the property of someone who has agreed, as a gift or in a rental contract, to allow him on the premises. In fact, then, there is no such thing as a separate “right to free speech”; there is only a man’s property right: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners.
This is fairly easy to apply to the specific situation of speaking Spanish (or any language). Obviously, in a Spanish-speaker’s own home, or in his own business, he ought to free to say anything he wishes, and in any language he wishes.
In short, a person does not have a “right to freedom of speech”; what he does have is the right to hire a hall and address the people who enter the premises. He does not have a “right to freedom of the press”; what he does have is the right to write or publish a pamphlet, and to sell that pamphlet to those who are willing to buy it (or to give it away to those who are willing to accept it). Thus, what he has in each of these cases is property rights, including the right of free contract and transfer which form a part of such rights of ownership. There is no extra “right of free speech” or free press beyond the property rights that a person may have in any given case.
The same relationship between property and the rights like “the freedom of speech” applies to the use of foreign languages as well. A person has a right to produce a lecture, publication, or broadcast and distribute it to anyone else who would like to read, hear or watch the media in question.
If we apply this to the situation of employees speaking Spanish at an Albertsons store, the solution is clear: an employee on duty has a right to speak any language the employer agrees to. The same would be true of customers as well, since an owner may also limit what customers do on the premises.
In practice, of course, badgering either employees or customers about what language they use is terrible for business and for employee morale. In most situations, multi-lingual employees are an asset, not a liability. And it’s not a great idea to turn away potential customers who happen to prefer using other languages.
Predictably, the media has attempted to turn the controversy into a battle of ideologies over immigration, religion, culture, and ethnic origin. We’ve seen this sort of thing before.
In 2014, when Hobby Lobby sued in federal court over the right to contract freely with employees on the matter of health insurance, many leftwing activists labeled the conflict as one between an alleged “right” to healthcare and the reactionary forces of “theocracy” and religious dogma. In truth, it was simply a case of an employer wanting freedom over how to compensate workers who freely consented to employment.
Similarly, in 2015 the fight over whether or not shopkeepers can decide for whom they might want to bake a cake, the defenders of private property were once again denounced as religious zealots.
In both cases, the real heart of the matter was simply one of ordinary property rights in which consenting adults ought to be free to enter into agreements — and in which no person can force another person to use his own body or other property in a way he or she doesn’t want to.
Nevertheless, the conflict is being framed as one in which workers from a certain ethnic group are being targeted by bigots. The response from some on the other side has been to attempt to devalue the use of foreign languages altogether and to even frame them, as Carlson is doing, as a threat to American domestic peace.
The Albertsons conflict, however, won’t be fixed by implementing “official languages” or by threatening federal lawsuits at any employer who requests only certain languages be spoken in the break room.
Indeed, there is no reason for any sort of government policy on the matter whatsoever. In the real world, depending on location, ownership, and the customer base, some employers will be quite open to the use of foreign languages. And some will be less so. In those places where consumers often use Spanish, for instance, employees who also speak Spanish will be more valuable than mono-lingual employees. In all cases, of course, owners and employers will have an incentive to accommodate foreign-language-speaking consumers.
But in each case, it must be up to the property owners to determine the best way to do this.
Yes, there will always be some emotionally fragile oddballs who feel “offended” or “threatened” by hearing a foreign language spoken within earshot. And it’s unfortunate that such people revel in being poorly educated and unable to comprehend foreign tongues.
Nevertheless, it must be up to shopkeepers, employers, entrepreneurs, homeowners, landlords, and other private owners who determine what sorts of speech are allowed on their premises — and what languages may be spoken there.
About the author:
*Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. Send him your article submissions, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
This article was published by the MISES Institute