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Encyclopedia > ACLU

The American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, is a non_governmental organization devoted to defending civil rights and civil liberties in the United States. Lawsuits brought by the ACLU have been central to several important developments in U.S. constitutional law. The ACLU provides lawyers and legal expertise in cases where it believes civil rights are being violated. In many cases where it does not provide legal representation, the ACLU submits amicus curiae briefs in support of its positions. The ACLU is non-partisan and has never supported or opposed a political candidate, though it has been harshly critical of various elected officials of both parties over the years.



The ACLU's stated mission is to defend the civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Over the years, the ACLU has consistently fought in the court system for a liberal interpretation of the U.S. Constitution that allows for as much individual liberty as possible. Among other positions, the ACLU:

  • Supports the separation of church and state; under this mandate, the ACLU:
    • Opposes the government_sponsored display of religious symbols on public property;
    • Opposes official prayers, religious ceremonies, or "moments of silence" in public schools or schools funded with public money;
    • Supports the rights of public school students to pray on their own;
  • Supports full newspapers;
  • Supports reproductive rights, including the right to choose an abortion, on the basis of an implied right to privacy in the Fourth Amendment;
  • Supports full civil rights for homosexuals, including government benefits for homosexual couples equal to those provided for heterosexual ones;
  • Supports affirmative action;
  • Supports the rights of defendants and suspects against unconstitutional police practices;
  • Opposes the criminal prohibition of drugs, and supports the legalization of drugs such as heroin, cocaine and marijuana (ACLU's Drug Policy (http://www.aclu.org/DrugPolicy/DrugPolicy.cfm?ID=12401&c=19));
  • Opposes demonstration permits and other requirements for protests in public places

Notably absent is any position on gun control. While the national ACLU nominally argues that the Second Amendment provides only for a right to armed state militias [1] (http://www.aclu.org/PolicePractices/PolicePractices.cfm?ID=9621&c=25), the issue is basically outside of the organization's scope, as it has avoided gun_related cases.

The ACLU has been noted for vigorously defending the right to express unpopular, controversial, and extremist opinions on both the left and right. Some have expressed the view that the ACLU sometimes plays a role comparable to that played by public defenders, helping to ensure that even unpopular defendants receive due process. Executive Director Anthony D. Romero, President Nadine Strossen, and Legal Director Steven Shapiro currently head the organization.

History and Notable Cases

The ACLU was formed in 1920 as the Civil Liberties Bureau. Founders include Crystal Eastman and Roger Baldwin. During that year, it took the side of aliens threatened with deportation by U.S. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer for their radical views (see: Palmer Raids). It also opposed attacks on the rights of the Industrial Workers of the World and other labor unions to meet and organize. Since its founding, the ACLU has been involved in many cases. A few of the most significant are discussed here:

In 1925, the ACLU persuaded John T. Scopes to defy Tennessee's anti-evolution law in a court test. 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 reversed the fine, but not the conviction.

In 1942, a few months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the ACLU affiliates on the West Coast became some of the sharpest critics of the government's policy on enemy aliens and U.S. citizens descended from enemy ancestry. This included the relocation of Japanese-American citizens, internment of aliens, prejudicial curfews (U.S. v. Hirabayashi, 1942), and the like.

In 1954, the ACLU played a role in the case of Brown v. Board of Education which led to the ban on segregation in U.S. public schools.

In 1973, the organization was the first major national organization to call for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon, giving as reasons the violation by the Nixon administration of civil liberties. That same year, the ACLU was involved in the cases of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, in which the Supreme Court held that the constitutional right of privacy extended to women seeking abortions.

In 1977, the ACLU filed suit against the Village of Skokie, Illinois, seeking an injunction against the enforcement of three town ordinances outlawing Nazi parades and demonstrations (Skokie had a large Jewish population). A federal district court struck down the ordinances in a decision eventually affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The ACLU's action in this case led to the resignation of about 15 percent of the membership from the organization (25 percent in Illinois), especially of Jewish members. A cutback in its activities was avoided by a special mailing which elicited $500,000 in contributions. Federal 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."

The ACLU filed suit to challenge the Arkansas 1981 Creationism statute, which required the teaching in public schools of the biblical story of creation as a scientific alternative to evolution. The law was declared unconstitutional by a Federal District Court.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing debate regarding the proper balance of civil liberties and security including the passage of the PATRIOT Act, led to a 20% increase in membership between August 2001 and December 2002, when its total enrollment reached 330,000 [2] (http://www.post-gazette.com/localnews/20021202aclusidebarp8.asp). The growth has continued; in August 2004, ACLU membership was at 400,000 [3] (http://www.madison.com/tct/news/images/index.php?ntid=7175&ntpid=0).

The ACLU has been a vocal opponent of the PATRIOT Act of 2001, the proposed (as of 2003) PATRIOT 2 act, and associated legislation made in response to the threat of domestic terrorism, that it believes violates either the letter or the spirit of the U.S. Bill of Rights. In response to a requirement of the PATRIOT Act, the ACLU withdrew from a Federal Donation Program that provides matching funds from the federal government for federal employees. The requirement was that ACLU employees must be checked against a federal anti-terrorism watch list. The ACLU estimates that it will lose approximately $500,000 in such contributions. See also: ACLU v. Ashcroft

Controversial defense stances

The organization believes that free speech rights must be available to all citizens of the United States. Therefore, it has taken on extremely controversial cases to defend the free speech rights of unpopular clients such as Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazi groups, and NAMBLA, a group which supports legalization of pedophilia.

The ACLU has defended Frank Snepp formerly of the Central Intelligence Agency (from an attempt of this government agency to gag him) and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North (convicted on the basis of coerced testimony—a violation of his Fifth Amendment rights).


The ACLU and its affiliated tax-exempt foundation receive substantial yearly support from the Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Field, Tides, Gill, Arcus, Horizons, and other foundations. However, recently the ACLU rejected $1.5 million from both the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations because a clause in the donation agreement stipulating that "none of the money would go to underwriting terrorism or other unacceptable activities a threat to civil liberties." The ACLU also withdrew from a federal charity drive, losing an estimated $500,000, taking a stand against the attached condition that it would "not knowingly hire anyone on terrorism watch lists."

Critics of the ACLU

The ACLU's most vocal critics are generally those who consider themselves conservatives. Many of these conservatives allege that the ACLU has not dedicated itself only to the defense of constitutional rights, but seeks to advance a liberal agenda. Some critics point to its opposition to the death penalty, which has been declared constitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States while the ACLU continues to argue that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment restriction against "cruel and unusual punishment" and against international human rights norms. Critics also argue that the ACLU has not been consistent in defending all civil liberties, pointing out that it is not active in protecting gun rights (the organization believes that the Second Amendment does not preclude Congress from "reasonable" regulation of arms in general [4] (http://archive.aclu.org/library/aaguns.html)). Critics claim gun rights enjoy the similar constitutional protection as "civil rights" and should be treated equally by the ACLU if it is not motivated by a political agenda.

The Ohio chapter of the ACLU was criticized for presenting the Council on American_Islamic Relations with an award in October, 2003. Critics contend that CAIR is dedicated to the advancement of radical Wahhabism. [5] (http://cair-net.org/asp/article.asp?id=32696&page=NB)

The ACLU also has been subject to criticism by some, mainly on the political left, who support the bulk of its mission, but object to the organization's advocacy for corporations to enjoy the protections of the Bill of Rights, e.g. corporate personhood.

Christian and other religious critics

At the local level, the ACLU often involves itself in cases involving the separation of church and state. Therefore, one of the most consistent critics of the ACLU is the conservative Christian community in the United States. Many in this community contend that the ACLU is part of an effort to remove all references to religion from American government.

In 2004, for example, the ACLU of Southern California threatened to sue the city of Redlands, California if it did not remove a picture of a cross from the city's seal. The ACLU argued that having a cross on the seal amounted to a government-sponsored endorsement of Christianity and violated separation of church and state. The city complied with the ACLU and removed the cross from all city vehicles, business cards, and police badges. Then the ACLU threatened Los Angeles County, California if it also did not remove an image of a cross from its seal. As in the Redlands case, the county board complied with the demands and voted to remove the cross from its seal as well.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, the Rev. Jerry Falwell remarked that the ACLU, by trying to 'secularize America,' had provoked the wrath of God, and therefore caused the terrorist attacks to happen. Other critics of the ACLU do not make such strong accusations, but claim that the organization pushes the concept of separation of church and state beyond its original meaning.

Many minority religious groups like Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims have at times been defended by the ACLU and are ardent supporters of it. In the Mormon community, the ACLU is viewed positively by some, who cite Santa Fe v. Doe, a case litigated by the ACLU on behalf of a Mormon student concerning school prayer [6] (http://wenger.blogspot.com/2003-08-10-wenger-archive.html#106087652143939285). However, a good number of Mormons are strongly against the activities of the ACLU, and there is evidence that this is the official position of the church [7] (http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000198.html).

National Affiliates

Although the ACLU has a national headquarters located in New York City, the organization does most of its work through locally based affiliates that are located throughout the United States. These affiliates maintain a certain amount of autonomy from the National organization, and are able to work independently from each other. Many of the ACLU's cases originate from the local level and are handled by lawyers from the local affiliates.

At times, this has led to conflicts between the various branches. For instance, the national ACLU refused to get involved in Japanese_American internment cases during World War II. Against the threat of being kicked from the organization, the Northern California branch litigated Korematsu v. United States case, taking it to the Supreme Court.

Below are some of the ACLU's bigger affiliates:

Quotes about the ACLU

''The ACLU has stood foursquare against the recurring tides of hysteria that from time to time threaten freedoms everywhere..."—Chief Justice Earl Warren
"America needs a civil liberties union. It no longer has one. I still make my contribution because the ACLU still does some good, but if things don't change, it could become an enemy of free speech." —Professor Alan Dershowitz, 25-year ACLU member
"I'm glad the ACLU raises the objections it does, because it forces the government and Congress to be mindful of First Amendment rights." — U.S. Representative Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), 2003
"The American Civil Liberties Union is closely affiliated with the communist movement in the United States, and fully 90% of its efforts are on behalf of communists who have come into conflict with the law. It claims to stand for free speech, free press, and free assembly, but it is quite apparent that the main function of the ACLU is an attempt to protect the communists ... Since its beginnings, the ACLU has waged war against Christianity..." —the Special House Committee to Investigate Communist Activities, 1931

External links

  • Official website (http://www.aclu.org)
  • History of the ACLU (http://arar.essortment.com/acluamericanci-rmal.htm)
  • ACLU News from Topix.net (http://www.topix.net/news/aclu)

  Results from FactBites:
FrontPage magazine.com :: You Can't Say That! by David E. Bernstein (1752 words)
In 1983, for example, the ACLU filed a Supreme Court amicus brief against Bob Jones University, arguing that it was appropriate for the school to be stripped of its tax exemption by the IRS because of the university's (purportedly) religion-based ban on interracial dating.
The ACLU argues-albeit not persuasively-that the Scouts is not truly a private organization, because it benefits from indirect government subsidies, such as the free use of public school facilities.
The ACLU also filed successful lawsuits against state university speech codes in Wisconsin and Michigan, and was active in defending neighborhood activists from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's charges that their political activities constituted illegal housing discrimination.
The ACLU's War on Homeland Security (1512 words)
The ACLU and protestors who held rallies on behalf of Intel software engineer Mike Hawash initially condemned the Justice Department for holding Hawash, a Palestinian born in Jordan who became a U.S. citizen in 1990, for a month as a material witness without formally charging him with a crime.
In court briefs filed by the ACLU, it has argued that the search warrants used in the raid on the IIIT were overly broad and that the materials taken, which the government is still using in its investigation, should be returned.
The ACLU has offered legal advice and organized local protests against an INS and Justice Department registration system that requires males over the age of 16 who are “temporary visitors” to the U.S. from 25 mostly Arab and Muslim countries to register with the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services or face deportation.
  More results at FactBites »



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