Lau v. Nichols

Following is the case brief for Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974)

Case Summary of Lau v. Nichols:

  • Following the integration of public schools in San Francisco, almost 3,000 students of Chinese descent attended school without the ability to understand English.
  • The school system provided special English instruction for only about 1,000 Chinese students.
  • Several Chinese students brought a class action suit, alleging a violation of equal protection.
  • The lower courts denied the students relief.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court, however, held that denying special instruction to the Chinese students was discrimination based on national origin, in violation of the Civil Rights Act.

Lau v. Nichols Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

In 1971, a federal court ordered integration of the school system in San Francisco, CA, which resulted in 2,856 students of Chinese ancestry joining the school system.  Those students did not speak English, but only about 1,000 of those students received a supplemental course in English.

Non-English-speaking Chinese students brought a class action suit against the San Francisco school district, claiming that the district violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The students asked for relief, but did not ask for a specific remedy.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court denied relief.
  • The Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding no equal protection violation.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does a school system violate equal protection by not providing supplemental English instruction to non-English speaking students?  Yes.


The decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A school system’s failure to provide non-English-speaking students with supplemental English instruction violates the Civil Rights Act because it deprives children of a certain race the ability to effectively participate in the educational program.


California education law requires that English proficiency is achieved for all students.  Accordingly, there is no equality of treatment by simply providing children with the same facilities, books, teachers, and curriculum when students who do not understand English are “effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.”  Basic English skills are at the core of what public schools teach.

There is no need to reach the equal protection argument in this case, because the case can be decided based on the Civil Rights Act.  The Civil Rights Act bans discrimination based on national origin.  By failing to provide English instruction to the non-English-speaking students, the school is discriminating based on national origin in violation of the Civil Rights Act.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Stewart):

It is not entirely clear that the Civil Rights Act, standing alone, is the appropriate basis to remand this case.  Yet, the interpretive guidelines of the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare clearly indicate that schools must take affirmative steps to assist students who do not speak English.  Those guidelines do not go beyond the authority of the Civil Rights Act, and therefore deserve to be followed.

Concurring Opinion (Blackmun):

Numbers are at the heart of this case.  Here, about 1,800 students are being deprived a meaningful education.  That circumstances requires the school to take some affirmative steps to assist them.  However, if there is a small number of children who need English help, this decision is not necessarily conclusive that special instruction is required.


Lau v. Nichols is a significant case because it demonstrates the Court’s intervention to remedy a practical and serious problem of a large number of students who do not understand English.  Legally speaking, it avoided the constitutional equal protection issue and decided the case based on the anti-discrimination provisions in the Civil Rights Act instead.  That is consistent with the Court’s doctrine of finding a non-constitutional basis to dispose of a case if such basis is available.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments