Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923)

2012-08-02 10:23:32

Meyer v. Nebraska addressed the constitutionality of a state law that prohibited the teaching of any foreign languages in any private, denominational, parochial, or public school to any child who had not completed the eighth grade. The petitioner, an instructor at a private school, was tried and convicted of unlawfully teaching German to a ten-year-old child. The statute at issue provided that ‘‘[n]o person, individually or as a teacher, shall, in any private, denominational, parochial or public school, teach any subject to any person in any language other than the English language’’ (262 U.S. at 396). A conviction under this statute would result in a fine or confinement in a jail for up to thirty days. Enacted in the wake of World War I, the apparent purpose of the statute was to prevent the inculcation of ideas and sentiments foreign to the best interests of the United States.

The Court considered whether the statute, as construed and applied, unreasonably infringed on the liberty guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. In finding the statute unconstitutional, the Court first considered the meaning of ‘‘liberty.’’ Liberty ‘‘denotes not merely the 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, and generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness’’ (262 U.S. at 398). Thus, at issue were the right of teachers to teach, the right of students to acquire desired knowledge, and the right of parents to control the education of their children.

The due-process doctrine established by the Court holds 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’’ (262 U.S. at 399–400). Indeed, as the Court explained, mere knowledge of a foreign language cannot reasonably be regarded as harmful. It recognized that the state may go very far ‘‘in order to improve the quality of its citizens, physically, mentally and morally,’’ including prescribing a school curriculum, compelling school attendance, and requiring that instruction be given in English. The Court nevertheless stated that the fundamental rights of the individual ‘‘must be respected’’ (262 U.S. at 401). While the state’s purported purpose—universal understanding of English and the promotion of civic development—may be desirable, it cannot be promoted by prohibited means.

Meyer v. Nebraska is significant for many reasons. It was the first time the Supreme Court invoked the substantive due-process doctrine to protect noneconomic personal liberties. In so doing, it opened the door for the recognition of numerous other personal liberties and paved the way for the process of incorporation of the Bill of Rights into the Fourteenth Amendment (Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652, 666, 1925). Meyer was the first case to recognize parents’ due-process liberty interest in raising and educating their children and it continues to be followed today (Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 63, 2000; ‘‘the liberty interest at issue in this case—the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children—is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court’’). Along with Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), Meyer set the precedent for the right to privacy cases beginning in the 1960s—for example, Griswold v. Connecticut (381 U.S. 479, 1965, penumbra or zone of privacy includes married couple’s right to use contraceptives) and Roe v. Wade (410 U.S. 113, 1973, invalidating antiabortion statute on right to privacy grounds).

Not only is the Meyer case significant for its farreaching impact on personal liberties, but it also continues to be relevant in cases involving parental rights and education. The Supreme Court continues to recognize that the state may control the classroom curriculum, subject to certain constitutional limits (for example, Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 1968, invalidating a law prohibiting the teaching of Darwinian theory). Indeed, it remains the only Supreme Court case involving school curriculum, other than cases involving issues of religion, such as school prayer and Bible recitations.


References and Further Reading

  • Ross, William G., A Judicial Janus: Meyer v. Nebraska in Historical Perspective, University of Cincinnati Law Review 57 (1988): 125–204.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968)
  • Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652, 666 (1925)
  • Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923)
  • Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925)
  • Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)
  • Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000)