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Reader Comment: Licensing sign language interpreters is the wrong way to go for Idaho

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With nearly 23 percent of Idahoans required to get a government license before engaging in a profession, lawmakers should seek to ease the barriers on finding employment and starting a business. But Idaho threatens to add to the list of professions requiring a government permission slip.

House Bill 46 was recently filed in the Idaho House of Representatives. If enacted, sign language interpreters will be prohibited from working in Idaho unless they first obtain an occupational license from the state government. Governor Otter vetoed a similar bill back in 2015, and this year’s version has the same problems as the rejected bill.

Those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing need qualified interpreters to assist them. But the new license scheme does not assure the qualifications of interpreters, and requiring would-be interpreters to seek a burdensome, unnecessary license violates their constitutional rights.

House Bill 46 fails to provide the public with any meaningful protection that cannot adequately be addressed through existing alternatives like voluntary certification. Instead, the proposed bill is merely red tape. That is, it functions as a tax on sign language interpreters and creates an unnecessary barrier to aspiring interpreters seeking a job. For example, under the proposed law, before being eligible for a license, sign language interpreters must show that they have passed an exam or obtained certification as an interpreter after completing a government-approved educational program.

But advocates for licensure have not come forward with evidence showing that these years of schooling and examination are necessary to protect public health or safety. Much less have they shown that a government stamp-of-approval via a license, rather than encouraging the public to seek out qualified interpreters who’ve voluntary obtained credentials, is necessary.

Furthermore, the fact that sign language interpreters can work without government permission in more than 30 states shows that licensure is heavy-handed and unnecessary to protect the public.

Rather than mandate that all sign language interpreters must obtain a government license, many states use programs to certify courtroom and medical interpreters. As a result, a path is created for ambitious professionals to demonstrate their credentials, without government controlling entry into the profession.

Instead of allowing sign language interpreters to differentiate themselves based on their individual experience and qualifications, and empowering consumers to choose whose services to engage (and whether they’re willing (or need) to pay a premium for a certified interpreter), House Bill 46 would monopolize the sign language interpreting profession for the benefit of the interpreters who have already obtained the highest credentials. As a result, those who need interpreting services will find fewer interpreters available, and the cost to engage the services of the interpreters who are available will go up. This kind of cronyism hardly helps individuals in need of interpreter services, and is unconstitutional.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right to earn a living free of arbitrary government controls. While Idaho may regulate various professions, any limitations on the right to practice a trade must be rationally connected to the professional’s fitness or capacity to practice the trade. In the absence of evidence showing the public is at risk from the practice of unlicensed sign language interpreting, or that licensing really helps, it is irrational to prohibit all aspiring sign language interpreters without a license.

House Bill 46’s restriction on the ability to engage in expressive activity also implicates the First Amendment. When the government singles out a particular type of speech for regulation, it faces great scrutiny in the courts. Due to the problems mentioned above, it’s likely that this law goes too far. Idaho lawmakers would be wise to respect all Idahoans’ economic liberty and put an end to any attempt to unnecessarily infringe on their right to earn a living and to free speech.

Caleb R. Trotter is an attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, which litigates nationwide in defense of individual rights and economic liberty.


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