Lau vs. Nichols (1974)   [full text]

In San Francisco, Chinese-American students were receiving instructions in a language they did not understand, English. The Chinese-American community held meetings with school administrators, proposed different solutions to solve the situation, went to board meetings to demand bilingual education, staged protests, etc. Although the school district did respond by providing one-hour per day ESL classes for these students, not every student was provided with this service.

On May 28, 1970, a lawsuit was filed against the president of the San Francisco School Board and the district. Attorney Edward Steinman represented Kinney Timmon Lau and approximately 1,800 Chinese-American students. This case was based on a different notion of equality. Taking people who are the same and treating them differently is one type of discrimination but taking people who are different and treating them the same, is subtler, but, is equally discriminating.

Steinman argued that this unequal treatment violated Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court overturned rulings by the District Court, the Court of Appeals, and the Ninth Circuit Court, calling the previous rulings “very cruel, inaccurate, and callous.” The San Francisco schools signed a consent decree agreeing to provide bilingual education for Chinese, Filipino, and Hispanic children.

Discussion points from the Supreme Court Decision

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