Can the government regulate what children are taught, even in private schools? Does the government have a sufficient "rational interest" in children's education to determine exactly what that education encompasses, no matter where the education is received? Or do parents have a right to determine for themselves what sorts of things their children will learn?
There's nothing in the Constitution which explicitly states any such right, either on the part of parents or on the part of children, which is probably why some government officials have tried to prevent children in any school, public or private, from being taught in any language other than English. Given the rabid anti-German sentiment in American society at the time such a law was passed in Nebraska, the target of the law was obvious and the emotions behind it were understandable, but that didn't mean it was just, much less constitutional.
Fast Facts: Meyer v. Nebraska
- Case Argued: February 23, 1923
- Decision Issued: June 4, 1923
- Petitioner: Robert T. Meyer
- Respondent: State of Nebraska
- Key Question: Did a Nebraska statute prohibiting teaching grade-school children any language other than English violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause?
- Majority Decision: Justices McReynolds, Taft, McKenna, Van Devanter, Brandeis, Butler, and Sanford
- Dissenting: Justices Holmes and Sutherland
- Ruling: The Nebraska law did violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and was declared unconstitutional.
In 1919, Nebraska passed a law prohibiting anyone in any school from teaching any subject in any language except English. In addition, foreign languages could be taught only after the child had passed the eighth grade. The law stated:
- 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.
- Section 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.
- Section 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.
- Section 4. Whereas, an emergency exists, this act shall be in force from and after its passage and approval.
Meyer, a teacher at Zion Parochial School, used a German bible as a text for reading. According to him, this served a double purpose: teaching German and religious instruction. After being charged with violating Nebraska's statute, he took his case to the Supreme Court, claiming that his rights and the rights of parents had been violated.
The question before the court was whether or not the law violated people's liberty, as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. In a 7 to 2 decision, the Court held that it was indeed a violation of the Due Process Clause.
No one disputed the fact that the Constitution does not specifically grant parents the right to teach their children anything at all, much less a foreign language. Nevertheless, Justice McReynolds stated in the majority opinion that:
The Court has never attempted to define, with exactness, the liberty guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. 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 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.
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.
Although the Court accepted that the state may have justification in fostering unity among the populace, which was how the state of Nebraska justified the law, they ruled that this particular attempt reached too far into the liberty of parents to decide what they wanted to their children learn in school.
This was one of the very first cases in which the Court found that people had liberty rights not specifically listed in the Constitution. It was later used as a basis for the decision, which held that parents cannot be compelled to send children to public rather than private schools, but it was generally ignored after that until the Griswold decision which legalized birth control.
Today it's common to see political and religious conservatives decry decisions like Griswold, complaining that the courts are undermining American liberty by inventing "rights" which don't exist in the Constitution. At no point, though, do any of those same conservatives complain about the invented "rights" of parents to send their children to private schools or of parents to determine what their children will learn at those schools. No, they only complain about "rights" that involve behavior (like using contraception or obtaining abortions) which they disapprove of, even if it's behavior they secretly engage in as well.
It's clear, then, that it's not so much the principle of "invented rights" which they object to, but rather when that principle is applied to things they don't think people - especially other people - should be doing.