The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a national non-profit organization based in New York City, whose stated mission is "to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States." The ACLU is one of the most influential non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the United States, working through litigation, legislation, and community education. Lawsuits brought by the ACLU have been influential in the development of U.S. constitutional law. The ACLU provides lawyers and legal expertise in cases in which it considers civil liberties to be at risk. In many cases, where it does not provide legal representation, the ACLU submits amicus curiae briefs in support of its positions. Aside from its legal involvement, the ACLU also engages in aspects of political lobbying and civil liberties activism. However, the ACLU has never officially supported or opposed a political candidate, and is not aligned with any political party. The ACLU plays an important role in American society, defending the rights of those individuals perceived to be at risk. Nevertheless, to be truly effective in caring for each person, those responsible for leading society should do so with a mature, parental heart out of concern for each individual's well-being, with the result that each person would respond with trust and work toward the betterment of society. Under such circumstances, the role of the ACLU would be less that of a "watchdog" and more of a guide.
In 1917, Roger Nash Baldwin became head of the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB). An independent outgrowth of the American Union Against Militarism, the NCLB opposed American intervention in World War I. The bureau also provided legal counsel for conscientious objectors and those being prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917 or Sedition Act of 1918. In 1920, the NCLB changed its name to the American Civil Liberties Union, with Baldwin remaining director. Crystal Eastman and Albert DeSilver, along with other former members of the NCLB, assisted Baldwin in the founding of the ACLU.
When established, the ACLU was responsible for the protection of U.S. nationals threatened with criminal charges for their communist or socialist associations. The organization also sought to protect foreign citizens threatened with deportation, and opposed attacks on the rights of labor unions to meet and organize.
In 1940, the ACLU formally barred members of the Communist party from attaining leadership positions within the organization and would declare it inappropriate for any ACLU member to support a totalitarian dictatorship. Later that same year, the ACLU would ban all members associated with the Communist party.
Led by Baldwin, a former Communist, the purge began with the ousting of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a member of both the United States Communist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In later years, the ACLU experienced self-criticism for the enactment of these policies, and in 1960 there was an internal push to remove the prohibition.
ACLU affiliate Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, founded the ACLU’s Women's Rights Project in 1972.
In the 1988 presidential election, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush called then-Governor Michael Dukakis a "card-carrying member of the ACLU," which Dukakis was quick to acknowledge. This label now serves as a jocular recruitment slogan for the ACLU.
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, and the passage of the 2001 USA Patriot Act, the ACLU experienced a 20 percent increase in membership raising its total enrollment to 330,000 between August 2001 and December 2002. The growth has continued; in August 2004, ACLU membership was reported at 400,000.
Though the national headquarters of the ACLU are based in New York City, the organization does most of its work through local affiliations, which are organized into fifty state chapters. These chapters maintain a certain amount of autonomy from the national organization, and are able to work independently from each other. The majority of the ACLU's legal cases originate at the local level, and are handled by lawyers of the local chapters.
The autonomy of local ACLU chapters has often been discredited when examining the ACLU’s controversial involvement in the World War II internment of Japanese-American citizens. The position taken by the national branch during this period is often a topic of debate. While many affiliates maintain that the ACLU remained silent on the issue of internment, others argue that the organization discouraged its local chapters, in particular its northern California branch, to participate in the defense of interned Japanese. During this period the ACLU was rumored to have threatened to revoke the chapter status of its northern California affiliation when it agreed to defend Toyosaburo Korematsu in the controversial case Korematsu v. United States. Despite the questionable legitimacy of these arguments, the ACLU is recorded as filing a brief of amicus curiae (friend of the court) with the court, and offered information on behalf of the plaintiff to assist in the efforts of Korematsu.
Following the case, the ACLU publicly maintained that some internments may have been necessary for measures of national security, though the internment of all Japanese-Americans without a due hearing violated the legal rights of the interned individuals. The ACLU argued that the internments lacked civilian oversight and had occurred on the basis of racial discrimination.
State chapters remain the basic unit of the ACLU's organization. For example, according to a 2006 annual report covering a period of 20 months, the ACLU's New Jersey chapter was affiliated with 51 cases: 35 at the state level and 16 at the federal level. In 34 of those cases, the New Jersey chapter provided legal representation. In the remaining 17, the chapter served as amicus counsel, providing third-party information on the behalf of an affiliated party. The chapter listed 44 volunteer attorneys who assisted the ACLU in those cases. The organization’s New York chapter, the New York Civil Liberties Union, has more than 35,000 members and is among the most prominent of the ACLU state chapters.
The ACLU and its affiliated branches receive funding from a large number of sources including the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie foundations. The distribution and amount of funding that each branch receives varies according to state. Though larger chapters, like the ACLU New Jersey, can generate a substantial income, smaller chapters, such as the ACLU Nebraska, with access to fewer resources, often receive subsidies from the national branch.
On occasion, the ACLU has refused financial donations due to attached conditions. The organization rejected a $1.5 million donation from both the Ford and Rockefeller foundations because it viewed a clause in the donation agreement as a threat to civil liberties. The ACLU also withdrew from a federal charity drive when taking a stance against an attached condition that the organization would "not knowingly hire anyone on terrorism watch lists." As a result, it lost an estimated $500,000 in charity contributions.
While there remain restrictions on how legal fees may be collected, the ACLU receives substantial monetary awards in the events of favorable legal judgments. The awarding of legal fees to the ACLU, however, remains highly controversial. Groups like the American Legion have taken stances opposing the ACLU's right to collect fees involving cases of civil rights. Regardless, the recovery of legal fees by non-profit advocacy organizations remains common practice across the political spectrum.
Due to the nature of its legal work, the ACLU is often involved in litigation against governmental bodies, which are generally protected from adverse monetary judgments. A town, state, or federal agency may be required to change its laws or behave differently, but may not be required to pay monetary damages except by an explicit statutory waiver. Nonetheless, the ACLU has been awarded significant financial judgments when challenging governmental bodies in specific regards to the separation of church and state.
The ACLU Georgia was awarded $150,000 in fees after suing a county courthouse for the removal of a religious display. A removal of a second religious display within the same state led to a later judgment of $74,462. The state of Tennessee was required to pay $50,000, the state of Alabama $175,000, and the state of Kentucky $121,500, in three separate cases of illegal religious displays.
Various judgments awarded to the ACLU and its state chapters have resulted from the undertaking of a wide variety of cases involving creationism, internet pornography, the separation of church and state, and free speech. Total annual awards have been estimated to reach approximately $2.9 million. Despite its fiscal rewards, in taking on highly contentious cases, the ACLU leaves itself significantly vulnerable to potentially damaging judgments if the organization was found to be filing a lawsuit deemed frivolous.
The stated mission of the American Civil Liberties Union is to defend the rights of all citizens, as enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. While the majority of the organization’s cases involve the First Amendment, equal protection, due process, and the right to privacy, the ACLU has taken positions on a wide range of controversial issues.
The ACLU publicly supports the separation of church and state, and has voiced opposition to government-sponsored displays of religion on public properties and within public schools. The organization also opposes official prayers, religious ceremonies, or moments of silence held in public school buildings or schools funded with public money. The ACLU defends full freedoms of speech and of the press, including school-affiliated newspapers.
The organization also supports full reproductive rights, including contraception and abortion, full civil rights for homosexual individuals and couples, affirmative action as a means of redressing past discrimination and achieving racial diversity, and the protection of defendants and suspects from unconstitutional legal practices.
More controversially, the organization has lobbied for the decriminalization of illegal substances such as heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. The ACLU also believes in the right to privacy as working to protect the American tradition by disallowing the government to track individuals without evidence. The organization also supports the protection of immigrant rights.
The ACLU challenges legislation considered unconstitutional. It has opposed some laws regarding campaign finance, such as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which it considers an inappropriate restriction upon the freedom of expression.
The official policy of the national ACLU also argues that the intent of the Second Amendment is to protect the right of states to maintain arms to assure their security against the central government, but is not intended as an individual right to possess firearms. The ACLU has generally avoided accepting firearm-related cases, and has endured occasional criticism by those who consider their interpretation of the Second Amendment to be too strict.
The ACLU has been noted for vigorously defending the right to express unpopular, controversial, and extremist opinions on both sides of the spectrum. Many supporters of the ACLU view the organization as playing a role comparable to that of public defenders, helping to ensure that even unpopular defendants receive due process.
Since its foundation, the ACLU has taken part in a number of controversial cases. A few of the most significant are discussed here.
In a 1925 court test, the ACLU persuaded teacher John T. Scopes to defy the state of Tennessee's Butler Act, which outlawed the teaching of evolution within schools. Clarence Darrow, a member of the ACLU National Committee, headed Scopes' legal team. The ACLU lost the case and Scopes was fined $100. The Tennessee Supreme Court later upheld the law, but overturned the conviction on a technicality.
In 1942, a few months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, ACLU affiliates along the West Coast became some of the sharpest critics of the government's policy regarding enemy aliens and U.S. citizens descended from enemy ancestry. This included the relocation of Japanese-American citizens, the internment of aliens, prejudicial curfews, and the like. The national branch of the organization, in attempts to dodge the issue, took a mildly pro-government position and accepted the principle of internment, but demanded that those "cleared" of any suspicion of wrongdoing be released from the concentration camps in which they were held.
Brown v. Board of Education
Roe v. Wade
Village of Skokie
In 1977, the ACLU filed suit against the Village of Skokie, Illinois, a predominately Jewish community. The organization sought an injunction against the enforcement of three town ordinances that outlawed Nazi parades and demonstrations within the town. A federal district court struck down the ordinances in a decision eventually affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The ACLU's involvements in this case led to the resignation of nearly 15 percent of its affiliates, 25 percent of its Illinois members, and the majority of its Jewish followers. A cutback in its activities was avoided by a special mailing which elicited $500,000 in contributions.
In his February 23, 1978, decision overturning the town ordinances, U.S. District Court Judge Bernard M. Decker described the principle involved in the case as follows:
It is better to allow those who preach racial hatred to expend their venom in rhetoric rather than to be panicked into embarking on the dangerous course of permitting the government to decide what its citizens may say and hear…. The ability of American society to tolerate the advocacy of even hateful doctrines…is perhaps the best protection we have against the establishment of any Nazi-type regime in this country.
Arkansas Creationism Statute
In the 1980s, the ACLU filed suit to challenge the Arkansas 1981 Creationism Statute, which required public schools to teach the biblical creation story as a scientific alternative to the teachings of evolution. The law was declared unconstitutional by a Federal District Court.
ACLU v. NSA
In 2006, the ACLU filed suit against the National Security Agency in ACLU v. NSA. The ACLU aimed to challenge government spying in the NSA Warrantless Surveillance Controversy.
The American Civil Liberties Union believes that the right to freedom of speech must be available to all citizens and residents of the United States. Therefore, it has taken on controversial cases to defend the free speech rights of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi groups, and NAMBLA, a group which supports legalization of pederasty.
The ACLU has defended former member of the Central Intelligence Agency Frank Snepp from an attempt by the CIA to enforce a gag order against him. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, whose conviction violated Fifth Amendment rights by including coerced testimony, was also defended by the ACLU.
The ACLU has also been a vocal opponent of congressional acts created in response to the threat of domestic terrorism. According to the organization, legislation including the Patriot Act and the Patriot 2 Act violate the objectives of the U.S. Bill of Rights. In reaction to the passing of the Patriot Act, the ACLU withdrew from a federal donation program that matched funds donated by federal employees with government donations. The ACLU withdrew from the said donation program in response to a clause contained within the Patriot Act regulating that all ACLU employees be checked against a federal anti-terrorism watch list.
The ACLU's involvement in numerous legal cases throughout its existence has led to a great deal of disapproval from people holding a variety of viewpoints. Many critics focus on the organization’s stance regarding a particular case or group of cases, while others choose to criticize the general principles that guide the ACLU's decisions to become involved with certain cases.
Many critics of the ACLU have constructed alternative "backronyms" to express their dislike for the organization. The ACLU has been sarcastically referred to as the “American Criminal Lawyer Union” and the "American Communist Lawyers Union." The organization has also been labeled anti-Christian, atheist, Communist, lesbian, aligned with Lucifer, and overly litigious.
The ACLU's most vocal critics are generally those considered conservatives. Many of these conservatives allege that the organization has not dedicated itself to the defense of constitutional rights, but that it seeks to advance a liberal agenda. Some critics base this argument in the ACLU’s opposition to capital punishment. The ACLU maintains that the death penalty is contrary to the establishment of international human rights, that it violates restriction against cruel and unusual punishment, and that it denies the guarantee of equal protection.
Conservative critics also argue that the ACLU has been inconsistent in defending civil liberties equally, citing the organization’s hesitation to protect gun rights. The ACLU declares itself officially neutral on the issue of gun control, pointing to previous Supreme Court decisions to argue that the Second Amendment applies to the preservation of a well-regulated militia, and “the possession of weapons by individuals is not constitutionally protected." In 2006, the ACLU Texas joined with the National Rifle Association to claim that current legislation allowed for the harassment of gun owners, but continued to maintain their public neutrality regarding the issue of gun control.
The organization has also come under fire, mostly by conservative critics, for fighting against Megan’s Law, a law ostensibly enacted to protect children from sex offenders. Though the ACLU has opposed Megan’s Law for reasons of privacy violations, the organization has been unable to attain significant victories in these cases.
Conservative Christians, citing the ACLU’s involvement in the separation of church and state, often contend that the organization is part of an effort to remove all references to religion from American government. In minor legal battles, the ACLU has claimed that the presence of religious symbols within state or county seals constitutes a government-sponsored endorsement of church and state.
In 2004, the ACLU of southern California threatened to sue the city of Redlands and the county of Los Angeles if it did not remove a religious cross from their official seals. The city and county complied with the organization and removed the symbol from all city vehicles, business cards, and police badges. Religious critics have claimed the organization acts in excessive pursuit of the separation of church and state, and misrepresents the clause’s intended purpose.
In 1990, Pat Robertson founded the American Center for Law and Justice as a counterweight to the ACLU. Robertson claimed the ACLU was "liberal" and "hostile to traditional American values." The Thomas Moore Law Center, a non-profit legal center, also bills itself a "Christian answer to the ACLU."
Despite its religious controversy, the ACLU has defended the rights of jurors to religious expression and the rights of Christian students to distribute religious literature in schools.
Many minority religious groups, including Jehovah Witnesses and Muslims, have at times been defended by the ACLU. In the Mormon community, the ACLU has been viewed positively by those citing the case Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. The case, litigated by the ACLU, was taken on behalf of a Mormon student concerning school prayer. The ACLU has also aided the Mormon community in legal cases regarding objections to military service, the reciting of the pledge of allegiance, and a case over doorbell-ringing. Despite these measures, the ACLU has taken harsh criticism from a number of Mormon leaders who strongly oppose the actions of the organization.
Though the ACLU has, on occasion, defended the U.S. Libertarian Party, a number of Libertarians and Objectivists oppose the organization for its support of laws viewed distinctly anti-liberty, including affirmative action and private property anti-discriminatory laws. Many Libertarians argue that private business owners, and not the government, should hold the authority to decide which customers to serve and which employees to hire, even if these private business owners choose to base such decisions on criteria regarding race or gender.
Former ACLU member Nat Hentoff has criticized the organization for the promotion of affirmative action, and for the support of what he claims as government-protected liberal speech codes enacted throughout college campuses and workplace environments.
Law professor David Bernstein's book You Can't Say That! The Growing Threat to Civil Liberties from Antidiscrimination Laws discredits the ACLU for its frequent undermining of expressive rights when in conflict with anti-discrimination laws, as in the 2000 Supreme Court case of Boy Scouts of America v. Dale. Some Libertarians have formed an organization they describe as the "libertarian ACLU," the Institute for Justice.
Anti-pornography activists Nikki Craft and Catharine MacKinnon, who oppose pornography on feminist grounds, have also voiced their opposition to the ACLU. In the early 1990s, Craft developed an activism group known as the ACLU, which stood for the title "Always Causing Legal Unrest." The acronym confusion led then-director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Dorothy M. Ehrlich, to send a letter of protest, though legal action was not pursued against Craft’s group.
The ACLU has also been subject to criticism from the political left. Some critics object to the organization's advocacy for corporate personhood, or the protection of corporations by the U.S. Bill of Rights. The organization’s stance against campaign finance reform has also led to criticism.
Despite a flanking of political controversy, attempted government regulation, and decades of historical debate, the American Civil Liberties Union has become one of the United States’ largest non-profit organizations in existence. Since its founding in 1920, the ACLU has relied significantly on the financial donations of union members, affiliates, and sponsoring organizations.
The founding of the ACLU was intended to preserve the rights of free speech, association and assembly, the separation of church and state, the right to fair and equal treatment, and the right to due process. Decades later, the organization has continued to uphold its founding principles, adjusting with time to include the preservation of individual privacies.
In light of extreme criticism and the wake of government interference, the American Civil Liberties Union remains steadfast in the pursuit and protection of individual human rights, maintaining the long-established belief that when the rights of society’s most vulnerable members are denied, the rights of the entire society are endangered.
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