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Meyer v. Nebraska


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262 U.S. 390 (1923), argued 3 Feb. 1923, decided 4 June 1923 by vote of 7 to 2; McReynolds for the Court, Holmes, joined by Sutherland, in dissent. The Supreme Court as early as 1923 recognized the right of citizens to conduct their own lives, when it struck down a Nebraska law prohibiting the teaching of modern languages other than English to children who had not passed the eighth grade. Meyer taught in a parochial school and used a German bible history as a text for reading. The Court defined the issue as whether the 1919 statute was a violation of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Seven Justices maintained that it was. Dissenting on the basis of judicial restraint, Justice Oliver W. Holmes, contending that all citizens in the United States should speak a common tongue, argued that the Nebraska “experiment” was reasonable and not an infringement upon Fourteenth Amendment liberty. “That liberty,” McReynolds argued for the Court, denotes the right of the individual “to contract, to engage in … common occupations, 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 privileges, essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men” (p.399). Such a view marked the emergence of a new branch of substantive due process.

Although Meyer languished in doctrinal obscurity for forty years, it resurfaced in the 1960s as an important precedent for a constitutional right of privacy.

Paul L. Murphy

Subjects: Law.


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