Cases citing this case

U.S. Supreme Court

MEYER v. STATE OF NEBRASKA, 262 U.S. 390 (1923)

262 U.S. 390

No. 325.

Argued Feb. 23, 1923.
Decided June 4, 1923.

[262 U.S. 390, 391] Messrs. A. F. Mullen, of Omaha, Neb., C. E. Sandall, of York, Neb., and I. L. Albert, of Columbus, Neb., for plaintiff in error.

[262 U.S. 390, 393] Messrs. Mason Wheeler, of Lincoln, Neb., and O. S. Spillman, of Pierce, Neb., for the State of Nebraska.

[262 U.S. 390, 396]

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 no attained [262 U.S. 390, 397] 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 (Laws 1919, c. 249), which follows:

The Supreme Court of the state affirmed the judgment of conviction. 107 Neb. 657, 187 N. W. 100. 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 Congre ation, a collection of Biblical stories being used therefore. 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 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:

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. Slaughter-House Cases, 16 Wall. 36; Butchers' Union Co. v. Crescent City Co ., 111 U.S. 746, 4 Sup. Ct. 652; Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 6 Sup. Ct. 1064; Minnesota v. Bar er, 136 U.S. 313, 10 Sup. Ct. 862; Allegeyer v. Louisiana, 165 U.S. 578, 17 Sup. Ct. 427; Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45, 25 Sup. Ct. 539, 3 Ann. Cas. 1133; Twining v. New Jersey 211 U.S. 78, 29 Sup. Ct. 14; Chicago, B. & Q. R. R. v. McGuire, 219 U.S. 549, 31 Sup. Ct. 259; Truax v. Raich, 239 U.S. 33, 36 Sup. Ct. 7, L. R. A. 1916D, 545, Ann. Cas. 1917B, 283; Adams v. Tanner, 224 U.S. 590, 37 Sup. Ct. 662, L. R. A. 1917F, 1163, Ann. Cas. 1917D, 973; New York Life Ins. Co. v. Dodge, 246 U.S. 357, 38 Sup. Ct. 337, Ann. Cas. 1918E, 593; Truax v. Corrigan, 257 U.S. 312, 42 Sup. Ct. 124; Adkins v. Children's Hospital (April 9, 1923), 261 U.S. 525, 43 Sup. Ct. 394, 67 L. Ed. --; Wyeth v. Cambridge Board of Health, 200 Mass. 474, 86 N. E. 925, 128 Am. St. Rep. 439, 23 L. R. A. (N. S.) 147. The established doctrine is that this liberty may not be interfered [262 U.S. 390, 400] 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, 14 S. Sup. Ct. 499.

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:

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 [262 U.S. 390, 401] the act.' Nebraska District of Evangelical Lutheran Synod, etc., v. McKelvie et al. (Neb.) 187 N. W. 927 (April 19, 1922). 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 thereb 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 imporve 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 and cannot be promoted by prohibited means.

For the welfare of his Ideal Commonwealth, Plato suggested a law which should provide:

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 character 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. [262 U.S. 390, 403] Tanner, 244 U.S. 594, 37 Sup. Ct. 662, L. R. A. 1917F, 1163, Ann. Cas. 1917D, 973, 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 belo must be reversed and the cause remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.


Mr. Justice Holmes and Mr. Justice Sutherland, dissent.

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