June 4, 1923 – The Supreme Court Decides Meyer v. Nebraska

In Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a 1919 Nebraska law prohibiting the teaching of foreign languages to school children before high school violated the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This case is 14th on the list of most frequently cited U.S. Supreme Court cases.

Robert T. Meyer, the Plaintiff, an instructor in Zion Parochial School, was tried and convicted in the District Court for Hamilton County, Nebraska, for violating a state statute that forbade teaching “any subject to any person in any language other than the English language” by reading in German to a ten-year-old child. The statute further prohibited teaching foreign languages per se to any pupil who had not yet “attained and successfully passed the eighth grade.” The statute had been enacted during the First World War, ostensibly as an act of the police power of the state during “an emergency.”

The Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed the lower court, finding the statute to be a valid exercise of a state’s police power. The State Supreme Court wrote: “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.”

Justice James C. McReynolds

Justice James C. McReynolds

Meyer appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which invalidated the statute as applied. Justice James C. McReynolds, articulated the principal issue before the Court thusly:

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.”

He commented, “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.” This specific enumeration was one of the first and most articulate explications of just what liberties were protected by the general language of the Amendment.

Was teaching or learning a foreign language one of these liberties? And if so, could it be abridged by the state’s exercise of its police power? McReynolds wrote:

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.”

He added: “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.”

Further, Justice McReynolds denied that any “emergency” still prevailed that would justify the proscription of teaching a child some language besides English: “no adequate reason therefor in time of peace and domestic tranquility has been shown.”

Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and George Sutherland dissented, finding a valid exercise of the police power. Justice Holmes wrote: “We all agree, I take it, that it is desirable that all the citizens of the United States should speak a common tongue, and therefore that the end aimed at by the statute is a lawful and proper one. The only question is whether the means adopted deprive teachers of the liberty secured to them by the Fourteenth Amendment. It is with hesitation and unwillingness that I differ from my brethren with regard to a law like this, but I cannot bring my mind to believe that, in some circumstances, and circumstances existing, it is said, in Nebraska, the statute might not be regarded as a reasonable or even necessary method of reaching the desired result. The part of the act with which we are concerned deals with the teaching of young children. Youth is the time when familiarity with a language is established and if there are sections in the state where a child would hear only Polish or French or German spoken at home, I am not prepared to say that it is unreasonable to provide that, in his early years, he shall hear and speak only English at school. But, if it is reasonable, it is not an undue restriction of the liberty either of teacher or scholar. No one would doubt that a teacher might be forbidden to teach many things, and the only criterion of his liberty under the Constitution that I can think of is “whether, considering the end in view, the statute passes the bounds of reason and assumes the character of a merely arbitrary fiat.” [Citations omitted.] I think I appreciate the objection to the law, but it appears to me to present a question upon which men reasonably might differ, and therefore I am unable to say that the Constitution of the United States prevents the experiment’s being tried.”

Curiously, Justice Holmes agreed with the majority in a companion case insofar as it held a provision of an Ohio statute directed solely at the German language was unconstitutional.

The Far Reaching Impact of This Case

Meyer, along with Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), is often cited as one of the first instances in which the U.S. Supreme Court asserted the doctrine of substantive due process in the area of civil liberties. Justice Kennedy has speculated that both of those cases might have been decided under different rationales today: “Pierce and Meyer, had they been decided in recent times, may well have been grounded upon First Amendment principles protecting freedom of speech, belief, and religion.” (United States v. Caroline Products Co., providing a rationale for substantive due process for civil liberties, was not decided until 1938. See our analysis of that famous case here. )

Current Supreme Court practice avoids reliance on the Due Process Clause where a more specific provision (such as the First Amendment) is applicable. Famed Yale constitutional scholar Charles Black would agree with the McReynolds enumeration of rights, but would assert those rights under the “privileges and immunities” clause rather than the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Meyer has received notoriety far beyond its limited holding. The laundry list of rights covered by the 14th Amendment first articulated by McReynolds served as the basis for later cases to expand that list through analogy. For example, the Court found a limited right to privacy that included the right to access to contraceptives in Griswold V. Connecticut.

The right to marry, specifically mentioned by Justice McReynolds, has been cited frequently by advocates of gay rights to be a basic human right, available to all people, regardless of sexual preference.

This case is also is often cited in matters involving the movement for bilingualism in the schools and courts, given the vast numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants now living in the United States.

More recently, the principle of Meyer has been used to augment decisions based on First Amendment rights, ruling that the suppression of books by a school board deemed “anti-American” violates the Constitutional right not to have prescribed “what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.” (“Our precedents have long recognized certain constitutional limits upon the power of the State to control even the curriculum and classroom.” Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 873, 1982)

As Laurence Tribe notes in American Constitutional Law (2nd Ed, p. 1318):

Both Meyer v. Nebraska and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (268 U.S. 510 in 1925) [Justice McReynolds was the author of the majority opinions in both cases] nearly always cited in tandem, have remained durable and fertile sources of constitutional doctrine concerning the nature of liberty, the respective rights of social institutions, and the limits of governmental power to homogenize the beliefs and attitudes of the populace. The cardinal principle animating the Court’s decisions, despite the expected bow to liberty of contract, was that the state had no power to ‘standardize its children’ or ‘foster a homogeneous people’ by completely foreclosing the opportunity of individuals and groups to heed the music of different drummers.”

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