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Meyer v. Nebraska

From Language To Personal Liberty

The Supreme Court heard Meyer's case on 23 February, 1923. In a 7-2 decision, the Court overturned the Nebraska court's affirmation of the verdict. For the Court, Justice McReynolds noted that Meyer taught German as part of his occupation. Under the Fourteenth Amendment, Meyer had a right to work as a teacher, and the parents of his students had the right to have their children taught using German. The justice also pointed out that the state's exercise of its police power was subject to judicial review.

In this case, the Court believed the state of Nebraska had infringed on personal liberty, even if the intent of the language law had a desirable end: ensuring all children learned English. The Constitution, McReynolds added, protected everyone, even people who speak a foreign language, and the laudable goal of promoting English "cannot be promoted by prohibited means."

The decision had the immediate effect of restricting a state's ability to control completely the curriculum taught in a private school. But Meyer's broader significance came from the reasoning McReynolds used to support the Court's verdict. McReynolds wrote that the Court had not specifically spelled out the liberty guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment, and he started to do so:

Without doubt, it [liberty] 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, to 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 . . . The established doctrine is that this liberty may not be interfered with, under the guise of protecting the public, by legislative action which is arbitrary or without reasonable relationship to some purpose within the competency of the state to effect.

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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