A county prosecutor showed up at the local school to listen to a young student read aloud an Old Testament story in his native language. The state had recently passed a law against speaking a language other than English in school. Nebraska passed the Siman Act in 1919 which forbade instruction in a foreign tongue. The County D.A. saw the act and brought criminal charges against the teacher for allowing the use of a language in school other than English. The teacher, Robert Meyer, was tried and found guilty. But, he refused to pay the fine. He appealed. The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the Siman Act, like education itself, was part of the state’s powers and was lawful. This Act was directed at a security threat. The country had been at war with Germany, and speaking German was deemed a threat to national security. The teacher was charged in 1923. The boy who read Old Testament story was named Raymond Parpart and he was speaking German in class, in violation of the Siman Act.
Mr. Meyer appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court disagreed with the Nebraska Supreme Court. The federal court derided the law as an affront not only to the rights of teachers, but also to parents who wished their children to be educated as they saw fit. The court noted that the Siman Act prohibited current foreign tongues, such as Spanish, Italian and German, but not ancient languages, like Greek, Hebrew and Latin. The Act, said the court, was proscribing educational principles. Justice James C. McReynolds also noted the irrational, disproportionate treatment of German immigrants. “Mere knowledge of the German language cannot reasonably be regarded as harmful.” The court was saying that knowledge of how to speak German in itself does not make a person sympathetic to the Kaiser. Just as today, mere knowledge of how to speak Arabic does not in itself make a person a terrorist. Just as today, knowledge of how to speak Spanish does not make a person a Mexican drug smuggler.
The court noted that the protections of the U.S. Constitution extend to persons who speak English, as well as to persons who speak a foreign tongue. The court allowed that it might be better for persons to speak English in school and learn ordinary speech. But, said the court, this cannot be enforced by methods that conflict with the Constitution. A valid goal cannot be achieved by prohibited means.
Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. See the decision in Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 US 390 (1923) here.