Lau v. Nichols (1974)

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Facts: In the San Francisco public school district, about 2,800 students of Chinese ancestry did not speak English. The school district provided supplemental English instruction to about 1,000 of those students, leaving 1,800 students without English instruction. Those students sued the school district, claiming discrimination that violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on “race, color, or national origin.” The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the school district, reasoning that every student “brings to the starting line of his educational career different advantages and disadvantages…created and completely apart from any contribution by the school system.”

Issues: Does the school district violate the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act by failing to provide English-language instruction to the Chinese-speaking students? 

Holding: Yes, it violates the Civil Rights Act and the federal regulations used to enforce it. The court, therefore, did not reach any conclusion based on the 14th Amendment. Justice William O. Douglas wrote the court’s opinion, which pointed out that the California Education Code required that English be the basic language of instruction in all schools, that no one should graduate from high school without basic English proficiency, and that all children from age 6 to 16 be compelled to attend school. Douglas reasoned, therefore, that “those who do not understand English are certain to find their classroom experiences wholly incomprehensible and in no way meaningful.” Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination based on national origin in “any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare issued a guideline to enforce the Civil Rights Act that stated recipients of federal aid (like a school district) may not receive aid if they show “discrimination…in the availability or use of any academic…facilities of the recipient.” In other words, the school district received federal aid, and therefore it must abide by federal anti-discrimination law and policy. Specifically, it must take “affirmative steps to rectify the language deficiency….” Because the Chinese-speaking minority would receive fewer benefits than the English-speaking majority, the San Francisco school district was ordered to come up with appropriate relief for the Chinese-speaking students (e.g., supplemental English instruction).