Lau v. Nichols 8212 6520, No. 72

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtDOUGLAS
Citation39 L.Ed.2d 1,94 S.Ct. 786,414 U.S. 563
Decision Date21 January 1974
Docket NumberNo. 72
PartiesKinney Kinmon LAU, a minor by and through Mrs. Kam Wai Lau, his guardian ad litem, et al., Petitioners, v. Alan H. NICHOLS et al. —6520

414 U.S. 563
94 S.Ct. 786
39 L.Ed.2d 1
Kinney Kinmon LAU, a minor by and through Mrs. Kam Wai Lau, his guardian ad litem, et al., Petitioners,


Alan H. NICHOLS et al.

No. 72—6520.
Argued Dec. 10, 1973.
Decided Jan. 21, 1974.


The failure of the San Francisco school system to provide English language instruction to approximately 1,800 students of Chinese ancestry who do not speak English, or to provide them with other adequate instructional procedures, denies them a meaningful opportunity to participate in the public educational program and thus violates § 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination based 'on the ground of race, color, or national origin,' in 'any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,' and the implementing regulations of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Pp. 565—569.

483 F.2d 791, reversed and remanded.

Edward H. Steinman, Santa Clara, Cal., for petitioners; Kenneth Hecht and David C. Moon, San Francisco, Cal., on the briefs.

Thomas M. O'Connor, San Francisco, Cal., for respondents; George E. Frueger and Burk E. Delventhal, San Francisco, Cal., on the brief.

J. Stanley Pottinger, Asst. Atty. Gen., San Francisco, Cal., for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court; Solicitor Gen., Robert Bork, Deputy Solicitor Gen., Lawrence G. Wallace, Mark L. Evans and Brian K. Landsberg, Washington, D.C., on the brief.

Stephen J. Pollak, Ralph J. Moore, Jr., David Rubin, Washington, D.C., and Peter T. Galiano, Burlingame, Cal., for Nat. Ed. Assn. and others; W. Reece Bader and James R. Madison, San Francisco, Cal., for San Francisco Lawyers' Committee for Urban Affairs; J. Harold Flannery, Washington, D.C., for Center for Law and Ed., Harvard University; Herbert Teitelbaum, New York City, for Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Ed. Fund, Inc; Mario G. Obledo, San Francisco, Cal., Sanford J. Rosen, Berkeley, Cal., Michael Mendelson, and Alan Exelrod, San Francisco, Cal., for Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and others; Samuel Rabinove, Joseph B. Robison, Arnold Forster, and Elliot C. Rothenberg, New York City, for American Jewish Committee and others; F. Raymond Marks, Berkeley, Cal., for the Childhood and Government Project; Martin Glick, San Francisco, Cal., for Efrain Tostado and others; and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn. and others, as amicus curiae.

Page 564

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The San Francisco, California, school system was integrated in 1971 as a result of a federal court decree, 339 F.Supp. 1315. See Lee v. Johnson, 404 U.S. 1215, 92 S.Ct. 14, 30 L.Ed.2d 19. The District Court found that there are 2,856 students of Chinese ancestry in the school system who do not speak English. Of those who have that language deficiency, about 1,000 are given supplemental courses in the English language.1 About 1,800, however, do not receive that instruction.

This class suit brought by non-English-speaking Chinese students against officials responsible for the operation of the San Francisco Unified School District seeks relief against the unequal educational opportunities, which are alleged to violate, inter alia, the Fourteenth Amendment. No specific remedy is urged upon us.

Page 565

Teaching English to the students of Chinese ancestry who do not speak the language is one choice. Giving instructions to this group in Chinese is another. There may be others. Petitioners ask only that the Board of Education be directed to apply its expertise to the problem and rectify the situation.

The District Court denied relief. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that there was no violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or of § 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 252, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, which excludes from participation in federal financial assistance, recipients of aid which discriminate against racial groups, 483 F.2d 791. One judge dissented. A hearing en banc was denied, two judges dissenting. Id., at 805.

We granted the petition for certiorari because of the public importance of the question presented, 412 U.S. 938, 93 S.Ct. 2786, 37 L.Ed.2d 397.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that '(e)very student brings to the starting line of his educational career different advantages and disadvantages caused in part by social, economic and cultural background, created and continued completely apart from any contribution by the school system,' 483 F.2d, at 797. Yet in our view the case may not be so easily decided. This is a public school system of California and § 71 of the California Education Code states that 'English shall be the basic language of instruction in all schools.' That section permits a school district to determine 'when and under what circumstances instruction may be given bilingually.' That section also states as 'the policy of the state' to insure 'the mastery of English by all pupils in the schools.' And bilingual instruction is authorized 'to the extent that it does not interfere with the systematic, sequential, and regular instruction of all pupils in the English language.'

Page 566

Moreover, § 8573 of the Education Code provides that no pupil shall receive a diploma of graduation from grade 12 who has not met the standards of proficiency in 'English,' as well as other prescribed subjects. Moreover, by § 12101 of the Education Code (Supp. 1973) children between the ages of six and 16 years are (with exceptions not material here) 'subject to compulsory full-time education.'

Under these state-imposed standards there is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.

Basic English skills are at the very core of what these public schools teach. Imposition of a requirement that, before a child can effectively participate in the educational program, he must already have acquired those basic skills is to make a mockery of public education. We know that those who do not understand English are certain to find their classroom experiences wholly incomprehensible and in no way meaningful.

We do not reach the Equal Protection Clause argument which has been advanced but rely solely on § 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, to reverse the Court of Appeals.

That section bans discrimination based 'on the ground of race, color, or national origin,' in 'any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.' The school district involved in this litigation receives large amounts of federal financial assistance. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), which has authority to promulgate regulations prohibiting discrimination in federally assisted school systems, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d—1, in 1968 issued one guideline that '(s)chool systems are responsible for assuring that students of a particular race, color, or national...

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275 practice notes
  • Workforce Investment Act of 1998; implementation of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity provisions,
    • United States
    • Federal Register November 12, 1999
    • November 12, 1999 the provision in Section 188 of WIA that bars recipients from discriminating on the basis of national origin. Cf. Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974) (school system required to provide English language instruction to students of Chinese ancestry who do not speak English under Section 601......
  • Com. of Ky., Dept. of Human Resources v. Donovan, No. 81-3140
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • April 5, 1983
    ...those federal funds. Oklahoma v. United States Civil Service Commission, 330 U.S. 127, 67 S.Ct. 544, 91 L.Ed. 794 (1947); Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563, 94 S.Ct. 786, 39 L.Ed.2d 1 (1974); King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309, 88 S.Ct. 2128, 20 L.Ed.2d 1118 (1968); Steward Machine Company v. Davis, 30......
  • Hillsdale College v. Department of Health, Educ. and Welfare, No. 80-3207
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • December 16, 1982
    ...contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes or results in [sex] discrimination. Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563, 569, 94 S.Ct. 786, 789, 39 L.Ed.2d 1 Simple justice, recognition of Title IX's basic and broad remedial purpose and the other foregoing reasons ......
  • Morgan v. Kerrigan, Civ. A. No. 72-911-G.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
    • June 5, 1975
    ...the requirements of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. § 2000d). See 35 Federal Register 11595 (1970); Lau v. Nichols, 1974, 414 U.S. 563, 94 S.Ct. 786, 39 L.Ed.2d 1; United States v. Texas Education Agency, 5 Cir. 1972 (en banc), 467 F.2d 848, motion to clarify mandate denied,......
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243 cases
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  • HUMAN RIGHTS AND WRONGS: The Dark Canon of the United States Supreme Court in Environmental Law.
    • United States
    • UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy Vol. 39 Nbr. 2, September 2021
    • September 22, 2021
    ...(229.) Dept. of Commerce v. New York, 139 S. Ct. 2551 (2019). (230.) Cockburn, supra note 219, at 71. (231.) Id. (232.) Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563, 568 (233.) Id. (234.) Guardians Ass'n v. Civil Serv. Comm'n, 463 U.S. 582 (1983). (235.) Id. at 585. (236.) Sandoval v. Hagan, 7 F. Supp. 2d ......

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