Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


In Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Nebraska statute that prohibited the teaching of modern foreign languages in private and parochial elementary schools. The Court held that the statute was unconstitutional because it deprived parents and teachers of liberty and property without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Nebraska statute was enacted shortly after World War I in response to widespread hostility against Nebraska's large German American community that had arisen as a result of the war. Similar laws were promulgated in many other states. Proponents of these laws argued that they facilitated "Americanization" of children who lived in isolated ethnic communities. German American Lutherans, who challenged the constitutionality of the Nebraska statute and similar laws in companion cases in Ohio and Iowa, contended that their children needed to learn the German language in order to participate in German-language worship at home and in churches. Robert T. Meyer, a teacher in a Lutheran school in Hampton, Nebraska, defied the statute by openly teaching German, as did two other Lutheran parochial schoolteachers in Ohio and Iowa. Meyer argued that it was his religious duty to teach children the religion of their parents in the language of their parents. Since German American Lutheran parochial schools already taught basic curricular subjects in the English language, the Court found that the Nebraska, Ohio, and Iowa statutes did not promote the states' interest in encouraging patriotism and the use of a common language. In a dissent joined by Justice George Sutherland, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. argued that the Court ought to have deferred to the legislatures' determination that the statutes were necessary for the protection of the public welfare.

The Nebraska statute and its counterparts in other states were part of a broader nativistic assault on the rights of ethnic Americans that included a widespread movement to destroy parochial education by requiring all children to attend public school. In ruling that parents had a right to control the education of their children unless such education directly threatened the interests of the government, the Court in Meyer laid the foundation for its landmark decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), which struck down a compulsory public education law in Oregon. In reaffirming Meyer's ruling that parents have a constitutional right to control the education of their children, Pierce ended the movement for compulsory public education.

The Meyer decision was also significant because it was the first case in which the Court invoked the Fourteenth Amendment to protect noneconomic rights against intrusion by the states. Until Meyer, the Court generally had struck down only those state statutes that unreasonably interfered with economic activities. In suggesting that the statute unconstitutionally infringed upon both economic rights and noneconomic rights, Meyer marked the start of the Court's modern role as a guardian of personal liberties. In sweeping language, the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment "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 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."

Although proponents of parochial education regarded Meyer as a victory for religious freedom, the Court in Meyer did not rely upon the First Amendment's freedom of religion clause or any other specific provision of the Bill of Rights, which the Court had not yet begun to incorporate into state law. Meyer's emphasis on personal liberties, however, presaged the Court's gradual application of the various provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states, beginning later in the 1920s.

While most civil liberties decisions after Meyer and Pierce have been grounded in specific provisions of the Bill of Rights, Meyer remains a precedent for the proposition that there are some constitutional rights that are not found in specific provisions of the Constitution. Meyer therefore has served as a cornerstone for the development of the right of privacy. The U.S. Supreme Court relied upon Meyer in striking down antiabortion laws in Roe v. Wade (1973) and in other decisions concerning various aspects of privacy.

William G. Ross Stamford University

Luebke, Frederick C. "Legal Restrictions on Foreign Languages in the Great Plains States, 1917–1923." In Languages in Conflict: Linguistic Acculturation on the Great Plains, edited by Paul Schach. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980: 1–19.

Ross, William G. Forging New Freedoms: Nativism, Education, and the Constitution, 1917–1927. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

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