Sunday, June 22, 2014

Language Learning and the Law

From Wikipedia:

Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923),[1] was a U.S. Supreme Court case that held that a 1919 Nebraska law restricting foreign-language education violated the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

On May 25, 1920, Robert T. Meyer, while an instructor in Zion Parochial School, a one-room schoolhouse in Hampton, Nebraska, taught the subject of reading in the German language to 10-year-old Raymond Parpart, a fourth-grader, the Hamilton County Attorney entered the classroom and discovered Parpart reading from the Bible in German. He charged Meyer with violating the Siman Act.[3]  **

On April 9, 1919, Nebraska enacted a statute called "An act relating to the teaching of foreign languages in the state of Nebraska," commonly known as the Siman Act. It imposed restrictions on both the use of a foreign language as a medium of instruction and on foreign languages as a subject of study. 

  • With respect to the use of a foreign language while teaching, it provided that "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 other than the English language." 
  • With respect to foreign-language education, it prohibited instruction of children who had yet to successfully complete the 8th grade.

Meyer was tried and convicted in the district court for Hamilton county, Nebraska, and fined $25 ($294 in today's dollars). The Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed his conviction by a vote of 4 to 2. The majority thought the law a proper response to "the baneful effects" of allowing immigrants to educate their children in their mother tongue, with results "inimical to our own safety." The dissent called the Siman Act the work of "crowd psychology."[3]

Meyer appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. His lead attorney was Arthur Mullen, an Irish Catholic and a prominent Democrat, who had earlier failed in his attempt to obtain an injunction against enforcement of the Siman Act from the Nebraska State Supreme Court. Oral arguments expressed conflicting interpretations of the World War I experience. Mullen attributed the law to "hatred, national bigotry and racial prejudice engendered by the World War." Opposing counsel countered that "it is the ambition of the State to have its entire population 100 per cent. American."[4]

Majority opinion

In his decision, Justice McReynolds stated that the "liberty" protected by the Due Process clause "[w]ithout doubt...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."

Analyzing in that context the liberty of the teacher and of parents with respect to their children, McReynolds wrote: "Practically, education of the young is only possible in schools conducted by especially qualified persons who devote themselves thereto. The calling always has been regarded as useful and honorable, essential, indeed, to the public welfare. Mere knowledge of the German language cannot reasonably be regarded as harmful. Heretofore it has been commonly looked upon as helpful and desirable. Plaintiff in error taught this language in school as part of his occupation. His right thus to teach and the right of parents to engage him so to instruct their children, we think, are within the liberty of the amendment." And further: "Evidently the Legislature has attempted materially to interfere with the calling of modern language teachers, with the opportunities of pupils to acquire knowledge, and with the power of parents to control the education of their own."

And finally: "That the state may do much, go very far, indeed, in order to improve the quality of its citizens, physically, mentally and morally, is clear; but the individual has certain fundamental rights which must be respected. The protection of the Constitution extends to all, to those who speak other languages as well as to those born with English on the tongue. Perhaps it would be highly advantageous if all had ready understanding of our ordinary speech, but this cannot be coerced by methods which conflict with the Constitution​—​a desirable end cannot be promoted by prohibited means."

He allowed that wartime circumstances might justify a different understanding, but that Nebraska had not demonstrated sufficient need "in time of peace and domestic tranquility" to justify "the consequent infringement of rights long freely enjoyed."

SOUNDS LIKE A CLOSE CALL TO ME!  Not sure if other languages besides German have been targeted in this way.   Check out this further article regarding challenges which teaching the German language has had to overcome.  -- rsb

Call To Ban Teaching German Language Split Allentown Board During Wwi School District's Compromise To Keep It As An Elective Was Eventually Overruled By State Legislature, Which Forbid It.

March 27, 2000|by FRANK WHELAN, The Morning Call
On the evening of May 27, 1918, a thunderstorm pounded the Lehigh Valley with rain, wind and hail. Inside the Allentown School Board's meeting room, the mood was almost as stormy. The members had the most controversial subject on their agenda that they had ever faced, it combined a volatile mix of patriotism and the teaching of a foreign language.

School Board Chairman J. Dallas Erdman was demanding that the members forbid the teaching of German in the public schools. If not, they would be siding with the nation's foes who were killing Americans at that moment in World War I.

The Catasauqua School Board, Erdman pointed out, had already banned German. It was up to Allentown to follow.

Board members William F.P. Good, Oliver A. Iobst and Charles A. Reber were in Erdman's corner. But members Wilson Arbogast, Harry G. Correll, William J. Dietrich, the Rev. Charles J. Rausch and Oliver T. Weaber could only be pushed so far.

Make German an elective rather than the required high school course it had been since 1858, they argued. But don't do away with the teaching of the language of Luther, Goethe and the German ancestors of everyone in the room.

The board's argument grew heated. When their loyalty was questioned, the dissidents protested. `I am an American," said Rausch after a cutting remark in German by Iobst. `Do you challenge my patriotism?` said Weaber, rising, `menacingly from his chair," the Call reported.

The argument raged on, but the German supporters would not budge. Finally, the board agreed to the compromise of making German an elective. Part of the agreement was replacing the course's textbook, `Im Vaterland," which means `My Fatherland,` with something that sounded less pro-Germany.

The roots of this argument went back to the earliest days of the city and region's education system.  Until the Civil War, German was the first language of the Lehigh Valley. Newspapers were written in it, God's word was preached in it and school children were taught in it. It was not unusual to find rural schools in the Lehigh Valley where Pennsylvania German was the only language spoken into the 20th century.

This was not confined to public schools. Into the 1900s, Muhlenberg College's faculty and administration were deeply divided between those who felt all its courses should be taught in German and those who believed that only its theology courses -- the school was founded to train students for the Lutheran ministry -- should be taught in German.

But after the Civil War, the region was becoming more and more bilingual. English was the language of business and the popular culture that surrounded the Lehigh Valley. It was clearly being heard more often, mixed with the Pennsylvania German dialect, in the region's cities and towns. Perhaps for that reason the city's educational leadership, particularly clergymen, wanted German as a required part of the public school curriculum.

As the German Empire rose to a position of world power, many people in the Lehigh Valley were proud of it and their German roots. Teaching German in the schools was a part of the community's ethnic heritage that few questioned.
But World War I and the anti-German hysteria that followed America's entry in April 1917 changed all that. Sauerkraut became liberty cabbage and anybody who spoke the `Hun's` language was as good as a traitor.

The Allentown School Board's decision was made the same spring that the most popular movie in the city was a propaganda film, `The Kaiser -- The Beast of Berlin." Ads for the film in the Call showed a sinister Wilhelm II with blood dripping from his hands.

The day after the board's decision, the Allentown chapter of the Past Presidents Association of the Patriotic Order, Sons of America, denounced the members and demanded German be dropped.

Eventually, the board's compromise decision was overruled by a higher authority. In April 1919, six months after the war ended, Pennsylvania's Legislature banned the teaching of German in the state's public and normal schools. Although the law eventually lapsed and German came out of hiding, the debate of 1918 is a reminder of how volatile a mix language and politics can be.

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