In a series of cases from 1923 to 1927, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution protects the right to learn and teach foreign languages. Although the Court initially found this to be a substantive due-process right implicit in the 14th Amendment, later courts have also attached this right to the First Amendment.

During World War I, a wave of nativism spread across the United States, aimed particularly at German-Americans. This nativism was further exacerbated by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. To promote a common culture and language, over half the states passed laws prohibiting the teaching of foreign languages.

For example, a Nebraska statute barred the teaching of languages other than English in any public or private school until “after a pupil shall have attained and successfully passed the eighth grade.”

Anti-language-teaching laws challenged

Several court challenges arose from these laws.

The first to reach the Supreme Court, Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), involved a teacher at a Lutheran school who was fined $25 for offering German instruction. Justice James C. McReynolds, writing for the Court, struck down the Nebraska law for violating the liberty guaranteed by the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment. According to McReynolds, the “American people have always regarded education and acquisition of knowledge as matters of supreme importance which should be diligently promoted.”

The Court declared the law unconstitutional because it affected both the rights of parents to direct the education of their children and the rights of teachers: “Plaintiff in error taught this language in school as part of his occupation. His right thus to teach and the right of the parents to engage him so to instruct their children, we think, are within the liberty of the [14th] Amendment.”

In Bartels v. Iowa (1923), the Supreme Court struck down similar statutes in Iowa and Ohio. Four years later, the Court was confronted with a regulation in the federal territory of Hawaii that required any school that taught in languages other than English and Hawaiian to pay for special permits and fees.

The regulation also directed the times of foreign-language instruction and designated the textbooks that could be used. In Farrington v. Tokushige (1927), the Court held that this regulation violated the due-process clause of the Fifth Amendment. Justice McReynolds, again writing for the Court, characterized the law as infringing on the right to learn foreign languages.

Court declares a First Amendment 'penumbral right'

The Supreme Court subsequently reasoned that the right to teach and learn foreign languages is a penumbral right protected by the First Amendment.

According to Justice William O. Douglas in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), Meyer represented a First Amendment right to study foreign languages. Douglas noted that without penumbral rights such as this, the explicit First Amendment rights of free speech and press “would be less secure.”

Conversely, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals used Meyer to invalidate Arizona’s English-only requirement under the First Amendment in Yniguez v. Arizonans for Official English (1995), although the Supreme Court reversed this decision on other grounds in 1997.

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