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Meyer v. Nebraska

Significance

For the first time, the Supreme Court hinted that the right to privacy was implied in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although this case dealt with Meyer's right to teach German, and parents' rights to have their children learn the language, Meyer was later used as a precedent to uphold contraceptive and abortion rights.

During and after World War I, a wave of "100 percent Americanism" swept the United States. Immigrants, especially Germans, were looked at with suspicion, and businesses and civic groups promoted the teaching of English and American values. Sauerkraut was renamed "liberty cabbage," and in Nebraska, angry citizens burned books written in German. In the context of that patriotic fervor, the state of Nebraska passed the Foreign Language Statute. The 1919 law prohibited an instructor from using a modern foreign language or teaching a foreign language to students in grades one through eight. Any teacher violating the law was subject to a fine or jail term of not more than 30 days.

Robert Meyer was a teacher in Hamilton County, Nebraska, at the Lutheran Zion Parochial School. In his class, Meyer used a collection of Bible stories written in German to teach reading to ten-year olds. The state found out and charged him on 25 May 1920, for violating the language law. Meyer was convicted in the district court of Hamilton. He then appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court, claiming his right to teach had been denied, a right guaranteed under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Nebraska court ruled that Meyer violated the statute. The law was a valid exercise of the state's police power, and it did not infringe on Meyer's Fourteenth Amendment rights. In its decision, the court reflected the anti-immigrant feelings of the time:

The salutary purpose of the statute is clear. The legislature has seen the baneful effects of permitting foreigners who had taken residence in this country, to rear and educate their children in the language of their native land. The result of that condition was found to be inimical to our own safety. To allow the children of foreigners who had emigrated here, to be taught from early childhood in the language of the country of their parents, was to rear them with that language as their mother tongue . . . The obvious purpose of this statute was that the English language should be and become the mother tongue of all children reared in this state.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Meyer v. Nebraska - Significance, From Language To Personal Liberty, Greater Impact For The Future, Academic Freedom And The Constitution