Supreme Court decision
By: James Clark McReynolds
Date: June 4, 1923
Source: Meyer v. Nebraska. 262 U.S. 390 (1923).
About the Author: Justice James Clark McReynolds (1862–1946) was born in Elkton, Kentucky. He studied law at the University of Virginia, earning a degree in 1884, and served as a professor of law at Vanderbilt University. In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt (served 1901–1909) appointed McReynolds Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division in the Department of Justice. He later became Attorney General, and was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson (served 1913–1921) to the Supreme Court in 1914. He served as a Supreme Court justice for twenty-six years until his retirement in 1941.
In 1920, a Nebraska private school teacher was convicted of teaching a ten-year-old child a Bible story in the German language. This act was in violation of a state law, passed in 1919, that prohibited the teaching of modern foreign languages in any school to any child who had not passed the eighth grade. The teacher, Robert Meyer, appealed the decision to the Nebraska Supreme Court and the conviction was upheld. Meyer again appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which determined the Nebraska law to be unconstitutional and overturned his conviction. Two justices, Oliver Wendell Holmes and George Sutherland, dissented.
The Nebraska law was passed in the period after World War I (1914–1918), which was characterized by widespread suspicion and fear of foreigners, Jews, Catholics, Communists, and Socialists. The Nebraska Supreme Court, in its decision upholding the conviction of Meyer, argued that children of foreigners who grow up speaking the language of their native country created a situation that "was found to be inimical to our own safety" because such children would naturally develop "ideas and sentiments foreign to the best interests of this country." The German language was especially fear-inducing since Germany had been an enemy in the recent war.
The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in this case was based on its judgment that the Nebraska law violated the Fourteenth Amendment by infringing on the liberty of both teachers and students. The Fourteenth Amendment states that it is not permissible to "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law." In this instance, the Court determined that the liberty of modern language teachers to engage in a "useful and honorable" profession and the liberty of parents to hire such teachers for this purpose were violated.
While the Court recognized that states do have the power to regulate education, it pointed out that they may not unreasonably infringe on the liberties of others as happened in this case. The decision indicated that while the State of Nebraska was justified in wanting to improve and unify its citizens, it may not accomplish this goal by unconstitutional means.
Meyer v. Nebraska is an important decision that helped to clarify the boundary between the rights of the state to compel children to attend school and to regulate the curriculum of both public and private schools, and the rights of parents to make reasonable choices in terms of the education of their children. The Court maintains that the Nebraska law was not a reasonable use of the state's power because there was no evidence to suggest that a child having knowledge of German or any other modern language constituted a real threat to the state or its citizens. Parents, on the other hand, have the right to allow their children to learn a foreign language. Foreign language instruction has an accepted place in the school curriculum and, the Court points out, early childhood is the time when foreign languages are most easily learned.
The Meyer decision became an important precedent for later cases. Meyer v. Nebraska was cited in the decision in the landmark 1925 U.S. Supreme Court case Pierce v. Society of Sisters, in which the Court declared an Oregon law compelling children to attend only public schools unconstitutional. Both the Nebraska and the Oregon law were found to infringe on parents' liberty to make choices for their children's education, and consequently were in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision in Meyer was one of the first in which the Court included in Fourteenth Amendment liberties rights not mentioned specifically in the Constitution. In the opinion of the Court, these rights include "without doubt… the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children.…"
Primary Source: Meyer v. Nebraska [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: The following excerpt from the text of the Supreme Court's decision in Meyer v. Nebraska includes a summary of the facts of the case, the text of the Nebraska law in question, and the main points of the Court's reasoning behind the decision. Justice McReynolds, who delivered the opinion of the Court, includes a lengthy excerpt from the Nebraska Supreme Court's decision upholding Meyer's conviction. The case was argued on February 23, 1923, and was decided on June 4, 1923.
Mr. Justice McReynolds delivered the opinion of the Court.
Plaintiff in error was tried and convicted in the district court for Hamilton county, Nebraska, under an information which charged that on May 25, 1920, while an instructor in Zion Parochial School he unlawfully taught the subject of reading in the German language to Raymond Parpart, a child of 10 years, who had not attained and successfully passed the eighth grade. The information is based upon "An act relating to the teaching of foreign languages in the state of Nebraska," approved April 9, 1919, which follows [Laws 1919, c.249.]:
Section 1. No person, individually or as a teacher, shall, in any private, denominational, parochial or public school, teach any subject to any person in any language than the English language.
Sec. 2. Languages, other than the English language, may be taught as languages only after a pupil shall have attained and successfully passed the eighth grade as evidenced by a certificate of graduation issued by the county superintendent of the county in which the child resides.
Sec. 3. Any person who violates any of the provisions of this act shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction, shall be subject to a fine of not less than twenty-five dollars ($25), nor more than one hundred dollars ($100) or be confined in the county jail for any period not exceeding thirty days for each offense.
Sec. 4. Whereas, an emergency exists, this act shall be in force from and after its passage and approval.
The Supreme Court of the State affirmed the judgment of conviction. 107 Neb. 657. It declared the offense charged and established was "the direct and intentional teaching of the German language as a distinct subject to a child who had not passed the eighth grade," in the parochial school maintained by Zion Evangelical Lutheran Congregation, a collection of Biblical stories being used therefor. And it held that the statute forbidding this did not conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment, but was a valid exercise of the police power. The following excerpts from the opinion sufficiently indicate the reasons advanced to support the conclusion.
The salutary purpose of the statute is clear. The legislature had seen the baneful effects of permitting foreigners, who had taken residence in this country, to rear and educate their children in the language of their native land. The result of that condition was found to be inimical to our own safety. To allow the children of foreigners, who had emigrated here, to be taught from early childhood the language of the country of their parents was to rear them with that language as their mother tongue. It was to educate them so that they must always think in that language, and, as a consequence, naturally inculcate in them the ideas and sentiments foreign to the best interests of this country. The statute, therefore, was intended not only to require that the education of all children be conducted in the English language, but that, until they had grown into that language and until it had become a part of them, they should not in the schools be taught any other language. The obvious purpose of this statute was that the English language should be and become the mother tongue of all children reared in this state. The enactment of such a statute comes reasonably within the police power of the state. Pohl v. State, 132 N. E. (Ohio) 20; State v. Bartels, 181 N. W. (Ia.) 508.
It is suggested that the law is an unwarranted restriction, in that it applies to all citizens of the state and arbitrarily interferes with the rights of citizens who are not of foreign ancestry, and prevents them, without reason, from having their children taught foreign languages in school. That argument is not well taken, for it assumes that every citizen finds himself restrained by the statute. The hours which a child is able to devote to study in the confinement of school are limited. It must have ample time for exercise or play. Its daily capacity for learning is comparatively small. A selection of subjects for its education, therefore, from among the many that might be taught, is obviously necessary. The legislature no doubt had in mind the practical operation of the law. The law affects few citizens, except those of foreign lineage. Other citizens, in their selection of studies, except perhaps in rare instances, have never deemed it of importance to teach their children foreign languages before such children have reached the eighth grade. In the legislative mind, the salutary effect of the statute no doubt outweighed the restriction upon the citizens generally, which, it appears, was a restriction of no real consequence.
The problem for our determination is whether the statute as construed and applied unreasonably infringes the liberty guaranteed to the plaintiff in error by the Fourteenth Amendment. "No state shall… deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law."
While this Court has not attempted to define with exactness the liberty thus guaranteed, the term has received much consideration and some of the included things have been definitely stated. Without doubt, it denotes not merely freedom from bodily restraint but also the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.… The established doc trine is that this liberty may not be interfered with, under the guise of protecting the public interest, by legislative action which is arbitrary or without reasonable relation to some purpose within the competency of the State to effect. Determination by the legislature of what constitutes proper exercise of police power is not final or conclusive but is subject to supervision by the courts. Lawton v. Steele, 152 U. S. 133, 137.
The American people have always regarded education and acquisition of knowledge as matters of supreme importance which should be diligently promoted. The Ordinance of 1787 declares, "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." Corresponding to the right of control, it is the natural duty of the parent to give his children education suitable to their station in life; and nearly all the States, including Nebraska, enforce this obligation by compulsory laws.
Practically, education of the young is only possible in schools conducted by especially qualified persons who devote themselves thereto. The calling always has been regarded as useful and honorable, essential, indeed, to the public welfare. Mere knowledge of the German language cannot reasonably be regarded as harmful. Heretofore it has been commonly looked upon as helpful and desirable. Plaintiff in error taught this language in school as part of his occupation. His right thus to teach and the right of parents to engage him so to instruct their children, we think, are within the liberty of the Amendment.
The challenged statute forbids the teaching in school of any subject except in English; also the teaching of any other language until the pupil has attained and successfully passed the eighth grade, which is not usually accomplished before the age of twelve. The Supreme Court of the State has held that "the so-called ancient or dead languages" are not "within the spirit or the purpose of the act." Nebraska District of Evangelical Lutheran Synod v. Mc-Kelvie,187 N. W. 927. Latin, Greek, Hebrew are not proscribed; but German, French, Spanish, Italian, and every other alien speech are within the ban. Evidently the legislature has attempted materially to interfere with the calling of modern language teachers, with the opportunities of pupils to acquire knowledge, and with the power of parents to control the education of their own.
It is said the purpose of the legislation was to promote civic development by inhibiting training and education of the immature in foreign tongues and ideals before they could learn English and acquire American ideals, and "that the English language should be and become the mother tongue of all children reared in this State." It is also affirmed that the foreign born population is very large, that certain communities commonly use foreign words, follow foreign leaders, move in a foreign atmosphere, and that the children are thereby hindered from becoming citizens of the most useful type and the public safety is imperiled.
That the State may do much, go very far, indeed, in order to improve the quality of its citizens, physically, mentally and morally, is clear; but the individual has certain fundamental rights which must be respected. The protection of the Constitution extends to all, to those who speak other languages as well as to those born with English on the tongue. Perhaps it would be highly advantageous if all had ready understanding of our ordinary speech, but this cannot be coerced by methods which conflict with the Constitution—;a desirable end cannot be promoted by prohibited means.
For the welfare of his Ideal Commonwealth, Plato suggested a law which should provide: "That the wives of our guardians are to be common, and their children are to be common, and no parent is to know his own child, nor any child his parent.… The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and there they will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter; but the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be." In order to submerge the individual and develop ideal citizens, Sparta assembled the males at seven into barracks and intrusted their subsequent education and training to official guardians. Although such measures have been deliberately approved by men of great genius, their ideas touching the relation between individual and State were wholly different from those upon which our institutions rest; and it hardly will be affirmed that any legislature could impose such restrictions upon the people of a State without doing violence to both letter and spirit of the Constitution.
The desire of the legislature to foster a homogeneous people with American ideals prepared readily to understand current discussions of civic matters is easy to appreciate. Unfortunate experiences during the late war and aversion toward every characteristic of truculent adversaries were certainly enough to quicken that aspiration. But the means adopted, we think, exceed the limitations upon the power of the State and conflict with rights assured to plaintiff in error. The interference is plain enough and no adequate reason therefor in time of peace and domestic tranquility has been shown.
The power of the State to compel attendance at some school and to make reasonable regulations for all schools, including a requirement that they shall give instructions in English, is not questioned. Nor has challenge been made of the State's power to prescribe a curriculum for institutions which it supports. Those matters are not within the present controversy. Our concern is with the prohibition approved by the Supreme Court. Adams v. Tanner, supra, p. 594, pointed out that mere abuse incident to an occupation ordinarily useful is not enough to justify its abolition, although regulation may be entirely proper. No emergency has arisen which renders knowledge by a child of some language other than English so clearly harmful as to justify its inhibition with the consequent infringement of rights long freely enjoyed. We are constrained to conclude that the statute as applied is arbitrary and without reasonable relation to any end within the competency of the State.
As the statute undertakes to interfere only with teaching which involves a modern language, leaving complete freedom as to other matters, there seems no adequate foundation for the suggestion that the purpose was to protect the child's health by limiting his mental activities. It is well known that proficiency in a foreign language seldom comes to one not instructed at an early age, and experience shows that this is not injurious to the health, morals or understanding of the ordinary child.
The judgment of the court below must be reversed and the cause remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
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