Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390; 43 S. Ct. 625; 67 L. Ed. 1042 (1923)

Facts—In 1919 Nebraska passed a statute that prohibited the teaching of any subject in any other language than English. Languages could be taught only after the child had successfully passed the eighth grade. Meyer taught in a parochial school and used a German bible history as a text for reading. The use of the text served a double purpose, teaching the German language and religious instruction.

Question—Does a state law prohibiting the teaching of a foreign language violate the “liberty” protected by the Fourteenth Amendment?


ReasonsJ. McReynolds (7–2). The Court has never attempted to define, with exactness, the liberty guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Certainly education and the pursuit of knowledge should be encouraged. Mere knowledge of the German language cannot be looked upon as harmful. Meyer’s right to teach and the right of parents to hire him so to teach were within the liberty of this amendment.

The statute also forbade the teaching below the eighth grade of any other language except English. The state supreme court had ruled that “ancient or dead languages” did not come within the meaning of this statute. This law interfered with modern language teachers, with the opportunities of children to acquire knowledge, and with the power of parents to control the education of their children.

The state may seek to improve the quality of its citizens, but it must respect certain fundamental rights of the individual, since the protection of the Constitution also extends to those who speak a language other than English. There are advantages to a ready knowledge of ordinary speech, but “a desirable end cannot be promoted by prohibited means.”

No emergency has arisen to render knowledge of another language so harmful as to justify its prohibition. Nor is this prohibition justified to protect mental health, since it is well known that a foreign language is more easily acquired at an early age. This statute is arbitrary and without a reasonable relation to any end within the competency of the state.

In a companion case, Bartels v. Iowa, 262 U.S. 404, J. Holmes authored a dissent highlighting the value of having all Americans “speak a common tongue” and upholding the law in question as a reasonable measure toward this end.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Law Faculty
error: Content is protected !!