Queens Councilman Wants All Storefront Signs To Be At Least 60% English. Constitutional?

August 2nd, 2011

The Times has more on this curious story:

Mr. Koo said that diminishing the proper role of English on signs threatened to alienate non-Asian customers and residents. He is proposing a measure that would require all storefront signs to be at least 60 percent English. Businesses would face fines if they did not comply.

“This is America, no? If I go to a Polish neighborhood and only see Polish signs, I would not be comfortable,” said Mr. Koo, a Republican. “New York is a city of immigrants, and English is a way for different ethnic groups to communicate.”

He added that the legislation was needed so that police officers and firefighters could quickly identify stores in case of an emergency. . . . .

He wants inspectors with the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs to enforce an obscure state law, passed in 1933, that requires businesses to display their names in English. The law was intended to protect consumers from fraud by underground shops during the Depression, but it has seldom been applied.

Is the Fraud rationale plausible? Some are not persuaded.

John C. Liu, the city comptroller, a Flushing resident who is of Chinese descent, said Mr. Koo’s proposal recalled the early part of the 20th century, when some native New Yorkers railed against the Yiddish on signs used by Eastern European Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side.

“Trying to justify this as a public safety issue is hogwash,” Mr. Liu, a Democrat, said. “The real premise behind the sign law is that some people are longing for the good old days.”

I know Montreal has similar laws that require signs to be in French, ┬ábut I don’t know of any other similar ordinances in the United States. Would this be permissible under modern commercial speech doctrines?