During World War I, a tide of nationalism and xenophobia prompted the passage of a Nebraska law criminalizing the teaching of German to children who hadn’t completed eighth grade. Robert Meyer, an instructor in a one-room schoolhouse, was tried and convicted for teaching German to 10-year-old Raymond Parpart. Robert challenged the law under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The U.S. Supreme Court held that the law violated the Due Process Clause. The Court stated that the “liberty” guaranteed by the Due Process Clause “denotes not merely freedom from bodily restraint, but also . . . to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” It recognized a common law right to guide the education of one’s children and engage teachers for that purpose. Finding that the “(m)ere knowledge of the German language cannot reasonably be regarded as harmful,” the Court concluded that the law was, “under the guise of protecting the public interest,” seeking ends that were “without reasonable relation to some purpose within the competency of the State.” It insisted that “(d)etermination by the legislature of what constitutes proper exercise of police power is not final or conclusive, but is subject to supervision by the courts.”