Lau v. Nichols (1959)

The failure San Francisco schools to provide English language instruction to students of Chinese ancestry who do not speak English, or to provide them with other adequate instructional procedures, violates the Equal Protection Clause by denying them a meaningful opportunity to participate in public education.

Citation: 414 U.S. 563 (1974)
Date decided: Jun 8, 1959
Longer case name: Lau, et al. v. Nichols, et al.
Law type: Civil
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin:
Topic(s):Education, English as second language (ESL), and Equal protection
Lists:Important cases
Attorneys:Edward H. Steinman (San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance Foundation) argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Kenneth Hecht and David C. Moon.
Others involved:Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by Stephen J. Pollak, Ralph J. Moore, Jr., David Rubin, and Peter T. Galiano for the National Education Assn. et al.; by W. Reece Bader and James R. Madison for the San Francisco Lawyers’ Committee for Urban Affairs; by J. Harold Flannery for the Center for Law and Education, Harvard University; by Herbert Teitelbaum for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.; by Mario G. Obledo, Sanford J. Rosen, Michael Mendelson, and Alan Exelrod for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund et al.; by Samuel Rabinove, Joseph B. Robison, Arnold Forster, and Elliot C. Rothenberg for the American Jewish Committee et al.; by F. Raymond Marks for the Childhood and Government Project; by Martin Glick for Efrain Tostado et al.; and by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn. et al.
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Case Importance

Brentin Mock, “How U.S. Schools Are Failing Immigrant Children”., July 1, 2015: “For the Lau case, the San Francisco Unified School District was ordered to create a master plan that would accommodate its Chinese, Latino, and Filipino students. The terms of that plan have served as the blueprint for plenty of other school districts that have been ordered by courts to develop programs for English-language-learners over the past four decades.”

Case Details

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)



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. 414 U. S. 565-569.

483 F.2d 791, reversed and remanded.

From the opinion

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. 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. [Footnote 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. 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.

Last modified: 2022-12-27 12:51
Case internal grade: A | Case internal status: OK |
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