April 21, 2004

Mere knowledge of the German language cannot reasonably be regarded as harmful

This is not just my opinion: it's the law. At least, it's an opinion expressed by James C. McReynolds, writing on behalf of a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In his recent post on John Kerry's French, Geoff Pullum noted in passing that "in Nebraska they once passed a law making it illegal to teach foreign languages in the schools," though "[f]oreign language learning is now, like sodomy, legal in all states". The reasons for the widespread legality of both practices are the same, namely U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

State laws criminalizing sodomy were overturned in 2003, in Lawrence and Garner v. Texas. State laws criminalizing foreign language teaching were overturned in 1923, in Meyer v. Nebraska.

According to the court's opinion, Meyer had been "tried and convicted in the district court for Hamilton county, Nebraska, under an information which charged that on May 25, 1920, while an instructor in Zion Parochial School he unlawfully taught the subject of reading in the German language to Raymond Parpart, a child of 10 years..." Meyer's school was a Lutheran one, and the peccant book was "a collection of Biblical stories".

The Nebraska state law under which Meyer was convicted had been passed in 1919, and read in part:

'Section 1. No person, individually or as a teacher, shall, in any private, denominational, parochial or public school, teach any subject to any person in any language than the English language.

'Sec. 2. Languages, other than the English language, may be taught as languages only after a pupil shall have attained and successfully passed the eighth grade as evidenced by a certificate of graduation issued by the county superintendent of the county in which the child resides.

The Nebraska supreme court upheld the law. Some of the Nebraskan reasoning, as described in the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion, might have been taken from Samuel Huntington's recent Foreign Affairs article:

It is said the purpose of the legislation was to promote civic development by inhibiting training and education of the immature in foreign tongues and ideals before they could learn English and acquire American ideals, and 'that the English language should be and become the mother tongue of all children reared in this state.' It is also affirmed that the foreign born population is very large, that certain communities commonly use foreign words, follow foreign leaders, move in a foreign atmosphere, and that the children are thereby hindered from becoming citizens of the most useful type and the public safety is imperiled.

Nebraska's Attorney General defended the law before the U.S. Supreme Court in these terms:

"If it is within the police power of the state . . . to legislate respecting housing conditions in crowded cities, to prohibit dark rooms in tenement houses, to compel landlords to place windows in their tenements which will enable their tenants to enjoy the sunshine, it is within the police power of the state to compel every resident of Nebraska to so educate his children that the sunshine of American ideals will permeate the life of the future citizens of this republic. A father has no inalienable constitutional right to rear his children in physical, moral or intellectual gloom." [Brief and Argument of State of Nebraska, Defendant in Error, 14-15] [via this on-line paper]

It's worth noting that the AG's rhetoric is explicitly modeled on the standard justifications for social welfare legislation, and that Justice McReynolds, who wrote the SCOTUS majority opinion overturning the law, was a very conservative man, who later worked tirelessly to obstruct Roosevelt's New Deal legislation.

It may be that the social welfare justification was (part of) the reason that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who is generally described as "liberal" and "progressive", dissented from the majority opinion (i.e. voted to uphold the Nebraska law). If so, the line-up of McReynolds and Holmes on opposite sides of this case is analogous to the contrast that I previously noted between David Brooks, conservative, and Samuel Huntington, liberal.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 21, 2004 07:47 AM