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4. Meyer v. Nebraska (1923)
Does the Constitution protect unenumerated rights, or does it guarantee only those rights specifically spelled out in its text? The Supreme Court has weighed that portentous question on several occasions. In 1905, for example, in the case of Lochner v. New York, the Court struck down a maximum working hours law for bakery employees because it violated the unenumerated right to liberty of contract, which the Court ruled to be part of the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Although Lochner has since been overturned, the Court got it right in 1905. The authors and ratifiers of the 14th Amendment understood it to protect a range of unenumerated economic liberties, including liberty of contract, against infringement by state and local governments.
In 1923 the Supreme Court cited Lochner in defense of another unenumerated right, the right to earn an honest living. At issue in Meyer v. Nebraska was a state law, passed in 1919 at the height of World War I’s anti-German hysteria, forbidding both public and private school teachers from instructing young children in a foreign language. Among those impacted by the law was a Lutheran school teacher named Robert Meyer, who taught the Bible in German.
Writing for the majority, Justice James C. McReynolds nullified the statute. “Without doubt,” McReynolds declared, liberty “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.” As for the Nebraska restriction, he continued, it unconstitutionally “interferes with the calling of modern language teachers, callings that have always been regarded as useful and honorable, essential, indeed to the public welfare.”
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