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Civil Rights Activists Cheer Defeat of Sign Law

July 27, 1989|IRENE CHANG | Times Staff Writer

A federal judge's recent ruling that a Pomona ordinance requiring the use of English characters on business signs was unconstitutional was hailed as a victory for the area's Asian population by leaders of civil rights groups this week.

The ordinance, which a group of Asian business owners challenged in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles earlier this year, required that all business signs with foreign characters devote 50% of the space to English characters. It was passed by a unanimous vote of the City Council last year.

Federal District Judge Robert Takasugi ruled the ordinance was unconstitutional because it discriminated on the basis of national origin and it limited freedom of speech.

"This ordinance was clearly an attack by the city of Pomona on its growing Asian community," said Robin Toma, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a brief in support of the plaintiff. "By attacking the use of the Asian alphabets in signs, rather than attacking the use of any foreign language, the city was sending out a clear signal to the Asian community, telling them that their culture is not welcome."

Toma said the ACLU is considering suing other cities with similar ordinances requiring the use of English, including San Gabriel, Arcadia, Rosemead, and Temple City. Some officials in those cities are already considering the implications of the court's decision.

San Gabriel Mayor John Tapp said that "in light of the court ruling I'm sure we'll have to review" the city's ordinance, which is virtually identical to Pomona's. Twenty percent of San Gabriel's population is Asian, Tapp said, and "a substantial number" of businesses have not complied with the ordinance, which was passed in March.

In his July 14 decision, Takasugi ruled that the ordinance violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment because it "expressly discriminates against sign owners who use foreign alphabetical characters in their signs. The use of foreign languages is clearly an expression of national origin." The ordinance also obstructs freedom of cultural expression, the judge ruled.

Councilman C. L. (Clay) Bryant, who proposed the ordinance, denied it was discriminatory.

"It had nothing to do with that," he said. "It didn't single out any racial origin. It just said, 'Hey, in Pomona our people and our public services should know what businesses to locate.' I wouldn't want to live in a community where I need an interpreter to tell me about the country I was born in."

Councilwoman Nell Soto said she was surprised the ordinance was struck down because it "does not take away their right to print their language. It asks them to include English."

The lawyer hired to represent Pomona in the case, Alan Yamada, said city officials have not decided whether they will appeal the ruling. The judge is still considering the plaintiff's claim that there was intentional bias in the ordinance, and the city is seeking to settle the claim out of court, Yamada said.

The impact of the ruling on Pomona businesses is unclear in a community where only 2.7% of the population is Asian, according to the 1980 Census. Although city officials say that all business signs comply with the ordinance, the attorney for the Asian group, Elizabeth Brancart, said there are a few signs in Pomona that use only foreign characters. Brancart refused to identify those signs and would not disclose the names of her clients, but said most of them are Pomona business owners.

Hoa Binh Market, a Chinese grocery store on East Holt Avenue, is one of a handful of stores that cater to the Asian community in Pomona. Doreen Han, assistant manager, said the market was not involved in the suit but she believed the law was unfair "because it's my personal right to express what I want to. Sometimes you want to express (something) only in Chinese." But, she added, the business signs in front of the market contain both Chinese and English because "our customers are not only Chinese. We have Filipinos, Americans, a mixture of different nationalities."

J Craig Fong, a lawyer with the Asian Pacific Legal Center in Los Angeles, has been monitoring the enforcement of the Pomona ordinance and a similar one in Monterey Park. Fong said the decision sends a signal to cities that "these communities are changing, and (city officials) need to find some other solution to the difficulties they seem to be having with foreign businesses."

In Monterey Park, where Asians constitute slightly more than half of the population, every business sign must include an explanation, in English, of the name or the nature of the establishment. In some cases both the name and type of business must be on the sign, but the law does not prohibit the use of a foreign language.

The passage of the ordinance in 1986 followed a bitter campaign by longtime Monterey Park residents who were concerned about a large influx of Asian immigrants and lobbied for laws requiring the use of English.

Bryant said Pomona's ordinance was designed to prevent the city from being transformed into another Monterey Park or Alhambra, where "the whole downtown is plastered with Oriental signs that no one can understand. There's some resentment to that."

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