An introduction to Constitutional Law 100 Supreme Court cases everyone should know

Randy E. Barnett & Josh Blackman

Nebraska criminalized teaching to young students “alien speech,” such as German, French, Spanish, and Italian. “Ancient languages,” such as Latin, Greek, and Hebrew could still be taught. The government was worried that children of “foreign born population[s]” were not being taught to speak English. The state contended that the “public safety [was] imperiled” because these children were “hindered from becoming citizens of the most useful type.” The Nebraska law addressed these problems by ensuring that English became “the mother tongue of all children reared in [the] State.” Nebraska prosecuted Robert Meyer, who taught at a private Lutheran school. His offense? Teaching German Bible stories to a ten-year-old student.

The Nebraska Supreme Court upheld Meyer’s sentence—a twenty-five-dollar fine—because the law “was a valid exercise of the police power.” On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction.

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