English-Only Emergency Alerts Backed by Circuit Court

By William Vogeler, Esq. on October 26, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The hurricane was long gone by the time the plaintiffs got to court.

They petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to order broadcasters to issue warnings in multiple languages. After all, the storm had destroyed many immigrant communities.

But the FCC tabled the idea for non-English alerts, and now a federal appeals court has upheld that decision. That was for Hurricane Katrina -- 12 years ago.

No English-Only

The League of United Latin American Citizens and other groups took action after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and many Gulf Coast communities. It left 1,836 dead and far more than $100 billion in damages.

In the emergency broadcast system, the government sends emergency messages to broadcasters in English. Broadcasters have the option to send out alerts in other languages.

In the aftermath of Katrina, the groups demanded the FCC issue a rule that broadcasters translate future emergency warnings. The agency declined, and the plaintiffs sued in Multicultrual Media v. Federal Communications Commission.

On appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the plaintiffs said the FCC's decision was "arbitrary and capricious." Judge Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the appeals panel, said the agency was acting on "bureaucracy standard time."

"Bureaucracy Standard Time"

Kavanaugh, in a 2-1 decision, chided the FCC but said the agency acted within its authority.

"Petitioners advance substantial policy arguments," Kavanaugh wrote for the majority. "But the issue before us is one of law, not policy. And under the law, the FCC's approach passes muster."

Judge Patricia Millett dissented, expressing some disdain for the commission's decade-long delay.

"The problem is that, when facing a life-endangering problem that the commission admits is imperative to address, the commission chose to just do again what had not worked before, without giving any reasoned explanation for its knowingly ineffectual action," she said.

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