America’s First Privacy Case: Meyer v. State of Nebraska
Privacy rights are not expressly addressed under the U.S. Constitution. However, the Supreme Court has nonetheless found that they protected under the Bill of Rights. Most notably, the Court has held that the notion of “liberty” under the Fourteenth Amendment encompasses a fairly broad right of privacy.
In Meyer v. State of Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923), the Supreme Court struck down a law that prohibited foreign languages from being taught until the ninth grade. The 1923 decision paved the way for a number of more memorable privacy decisions, including Griswold v. Connecticut, Roe v. Wade, and Lawrence v. Texas.
The Facts of the Case
In 1919, the state of Nebraska enacted the Siman Act, which regulated the teaching of foreign languages. It specifically prohibited, under criminal penalty, the teaching in any private, denominational, parochial or public school, of any modern language, other than English, to any child who has not attained and successfully passed the eighth grade.
On May 25, 1920, Robert T. Meyer, an instructor at the Zion Parochial School, was charged with violating law when he taught the subject of reading in the German language to Raymond Parpart, a ten-year-old student. The Supreme Court of Nebraska upheld the conviction, finding that the statute did not conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment, but was a valid exercise of the police power. Meyer appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Court’s Decision
By a vote of 7 to 2, the Supreme Court concluded that the statute was unconstitutional because it imposed an undue burden on the liberty rights of parents and teachers to instruct children how they saw fit. With regard to the notion of liberty under the Fourteenth Amendment, Justice McReynolds wrote:
While this court has not attempted to define with exactness the liberty thus guaranteed, the term has received much consideration and some of the included things have been definitely stated. 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 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.
While the majority recognized the legislatures desire to “foster a homogeneous people with American ideals prepared readily to understand current discussions of civic matters is easy to appreciate,” it ultimately concluded that the “means adopted exceeded the limitations upon the power of the State and conflict with rights assured to plaintiff.” As Justice McReynolds further explained:
The established doctrine is that this liberty may not be interfered with, under the guise of protecting the public interest, by legislative action which is arbitrary or without reasonable relation to some purpose within the competency of the state to effect. Determination by the Legislature of what constitutes proper exercise of police power is not final or conclusive but is subject to supervision by the courts….
The notion of personal liberty expressed in the decision was resurrected decades later in the 1970s when the Court considered a number of controversial cases involving contraception and abortion. It may even play a role in the Court’s upcoming same-sex marriage arguments.
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- Establishment ClauseFree Exercise Clause
- Freedom of Speech
- Freedoms of Press
- Freedom of Assembly, and Petitition
- The Right to Bear Arms
- Unreasonable Searches and Seizures
- Due Process
- Eminent Domain
- Rights of Criminal Defendants
Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.