Skip to main content
Select Source:

American Civil Liberties Union


Since 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has fought energetically for the rights of individuals. This private, nonprofit organization is a multipurpose legal group with 300,000 members committed to the freedoms in the bill of rights. Although these liberties—free speech, equality, due process, privacy, etc.—are guaranteed to each citizen, they are never completely secure. Governments and majorities can easily weaken them or even take them away. The ACLU has had enormous success fighting such cases: many of the most important Supreme Court decisions have been won with its involvement, and continues to fight thousands of lawsuits in state and federal courts each year. The ACLU also lobbies lawmakers and speaks out on a wide variety of civil liberties and civil rights issues. Its passionate devotion to these concerns makes it highly controversial.

The origins of the ACLU date to world war i, a dark era for civil liberties. War fever gripped the United States, and official hostility toward dissent ran high. Attorney General a. mitchell palmer orchestrated much of this hostility from Washington, D.C., by ordering crack-downs on protesters, breaking strikes, prosecuting conscientious objectors, and deporting thousands of immigrants. One group in particular stood up to him: the American Union against Militarism (AUAM), led by social reformers and radicals. Among its founders was the pacifist roger baldwin, a former sociology teacher. In 1917, as the United States prepared to enter the war, Baldwin gave the group a broader mission by transforming it into the Civil Liberties Bureau, dedicated to the defense of those the government saw fit to crush and corral. Anti-Communist hysteria worsened the civil liberties picture between 1919 and 1920, and the upstart bureau had its hands full as Palmer, and his assistant, j. edgar hoover, staged massive police raids that netted thousands of alleged subversives at a time.

In 1920, the Civil Liberties Bureau became the ACLU. Joining Baldwin in launching the new organization were several distinguished social leaders, including the author Helen A. Keller, the attorney and future Supreme Court justice felix frankfurter, and the socialist clergyman Norman Thomas. The ACLU quickly joined the U.S. Congress and the american bar association in denouncing Attorney General Palmer for his raids—and the outcry helped end his tyrannical career. In the first annual ACLU report, Baldwin weighed the effectiveness of public activism, noting, "[T]he mere public assertion of the principle of freedom … helps win it recognition, and in the long run makes for tolerance and against resort to violence." In its weekly "Report on Civil Liberties Situation," the group watched over a torrent of abuses: a mob forcing a Farmer-Labor party delegation in Washington State to salute the U.S. flag; a Russian chemist being arrested in Illinois for distributing "inflammatory" handbills; and the lynching and burning of six black men in Florida after a black man attempted to vote.

From the beginning, strict political neutrality was the ACLU's rule. The group did not oppose political candidates and declared itself neither liberal nor conservative. This position had an important consequence: the ACLU would defend the civil liberties of all people—including those who were weak, unpopular, and despised—without respect to their views. This principle made for strange bedfellows. As the Boston Globe recalled in its eulogy for Baldwin,

[A]t one point Mr. Baldwin was engaged simultaneously in defending the rights of the ku klux klan to hold meetings in Boston, despite the orders of a Catholic mayor; of Catholic teachers to teach in the schools of Akron, despite the opposition of the Ku Klux Klan; and of Communists to exhibit their film, "The Fifth Year," in Providence, despite the opposition of both the Catholics and the Ku Klux Klan.

Consequently, while carving out a unique place for the ACLU in U.S. law, these defenses also won the organization enemies.

Within a few years, the ACLU was widely known. Its first victory before the Supreme Court came in the landmark 1925 case gitlow v. new york , 268 U.S. 652, 45 S. Ct. 625, 69 L. Ed. 1138, in which the Court threw out the defendant's conviction under New York's "criminal anarchy" statute (N.Y. Penal Law §§ 160, 161, Laws 1909, ch. 88; Consol. Laws 1909, ch. 40), for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government in a printed flyer. Gitlow established that the fourteenth amendment, which applies to the states, includes freedom of speech in its liberty guarantee. By 1926, the ACLU was involved in the debate over church-state separation. It joined the so-called scopes monkey trial, arguing against a Tennessee law that forbade teaching the theory of evolution in public schools (Scopes v. State, 152 Tenn. 424, 278 S.W. 57 [1925]; 154 Tenn. 105, 289 S.W. 363[1927]). Besides bringing the group to national and worldwide attention, Scopes set it on a course from which it never veered: fighting government interference in religious matters. It staged this fight with equanimity, opposing official help and hindrance to religion, and it soon backed the Jehovah's Witnesses in a series of key Supreme Court cases. This involvement laid the

groundwork for the Supreme Court's ruling, in a 1962 challenge originally brought by the ACLU, that school prayer is unconstitutional (engel v. vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 82 S. Ct. 1261, 8 L. Ed. 2d 601).

Between the 1930s and the mid-1990s, the ACLU won (as counsel) or helped to win (through amicus briefs) several Supreme Court cases that profoundly changed U.S. law and life. Among these were brown v. board of education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954) (declaring racially segregated schools unconstitutional);mapp v. ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 81 S. Ct. 1684, 6 L. Ed. 2d 1081 (1961) (severely limiting the power of police officers and prosecutors to use illegally obtained evidence);griswold v. connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 85 S. Ct. 1678, 14 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1965) (invalidating a state law that banned contraceptives and, for the first time, recognizing the concept of privacy in the Bill of Rights);miranda v. arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966) (requiring the police to advise suspects of their rights before interrogation); Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 87 S. Ct. 1817, 18 L. Ed. 2d 1010 (1967) (striking down the laws of Virginia and fifteen other states that made interracial marriage a criminal offense); Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 89 S. Ct. 1827, 23 L. Ed. 2d 430 (1969) (invalidating state sedition laws aimed at radical groups); and roe v. wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973) (recognizing a woman's constitutional right to an abortion).

Rarely did these victories endear the ACLU to its opponents. Liberals often—though not always—applauded the effort and the result. They praised, for instance, the ACLU fight against the Customs Bureau for banning James Joyce's novel Ulysses, and its battle to secure publication of the Pentagon Papers during the vietnam war. Conservatives often found the ACLU meddlesome and the results of its meddling ruinous. Southerners denounced its war on segregation, antiabortion groups blamed it for legal abortion, and Vice President george h. w. bush even labeled it "the criminal's lobby" for its insistence on combating police illegality. At times, the organization outraged nearly everyone, as when it went to court to win the right of Nazis to march in public in Skokie, Illinois. Yet throughout its many controversies, the ACLU seldom seemed to go against its charter. Especially in the early 1990s, it did not avoid cases even when taking them on meant clashing with such traditional allies as feminists and university professors over its support of the freedom to publish pornography and opposition to campus speech codes.

Whose Civil Liberties, Anyway? The Aclu and Its Critics

Since 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has stood at the forefront of nearly every great legal battle over personal freedom in the United States. The C in ACLU might easily stand for Controversial. Although the ACLU's role as a major institution in U.S. law is indisputable, its effect on the law and on the lives of citizens is frequently in dispute. Political debate over the group yields very little middle ground and a great amount of passionate disagreement. Supporters agree with its self-styled epithet, "the guardian of liberty." To them, the ACLU is often all that stands between freedom and tyranny. Opponents think the organization is simply a liberal establishment bent on imposing its views on society. They fault its reading of the law, despise its methods, and rue its results. At the heart of this debate is a fascinating ironic question: how does an organization that fights for the very foundations of the nation's commitment to liberty inspire so much conflict?

Even from the start, the idea of a group devoted to defending liberty (the right of each person to be free from the despotism of governments or majorities) made some observers angry. In 1917, members of the Civil Liberties Bureau, which was soon renamed the ACLU, got this welcome from the New York Times editorial page: "Jails Are Waiting for Them." Although world war i was a period of governmental heavy-handedness, the Times proved to be both right and wrong. In the next three-quarters of a century, the ACLU became a vastly powerful force in shaping law, and it won many more enemies than friends. By the 1988 presidential election, candidate george h. w. bush could make political hay in campaign speeches by attacking the ACLU as "the criminal's lobby." Other critics said the ACLU was anti-God, anti-American, anti-life, and so on. In the end, no jails held ACLU members (at least not for long), but no small number of people would have liked to lock them away.

The case against the ACLU is actually many cases. Every time the organization goes into court, it naturally has to displease someone; litigation is hardly about making friends. Although the organization has one mandate, the abstract ideal of freedom, it must oppose the will of specific individuals if this mandate is to be carried out. Take, for example, one of the ACLU's civil liberties battles: religious freedom. For some, religious freedom means the First Amendment's guarantee that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"; in other words, that people will be free from government-imposed religious worship. For many others, religious freedom implies just the opposite first amendment assurance, that Congress shall not prohibit the free exercise of religion. In a 1962 court battle, the ACLU won a point for the former, an end to prayer in public schools, a victory that polls indicate was unwanted and unsupported by most U.S. citizens (engel v. vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 82 S. Ct. 1261, 8 L. Ed. 2d 601). Equally stymied by ACLU activism are people who want to display Christian crèches on government property at Christmastime. They have their holiday hopes dashed every time the ACLU wins a court order blocking such a display on First Amendment grounds. Each victory for the organization in such cases may be another disaster in local public relations.

In response, scorn heaped on the ACLU seldom fails to question its motives. The ACLU's "yuletide work" was attacked by the conservative commentator John Leo in an essay in the Washington Times entitled "Crushing the Public Crèche:" "While others frolic, the grinches of the ACLU tirelessly trudge out each year on yet another crèche patrol, snatching Nativity scenes from public parks and rubbing out religious symbols." Leo's point is shared by many conservatives: the government, far from remaining neutral in religious matters, is actually engaging in hostility toward religion, at the behest of ACLU "zealots." In this view, the defense of an abstract principle has taken hold of the senses of its defenders; they have become inflexible absolutists. The conservative attorney and author Bruce Fein took this complaint much further, discovering something insidious: "A partial sketch of the ACLU's vision of America reveals a contempt for individual responsibility, economic justice and prosperity and moral decency." Fein meant that the ACLU defends welfare.

Ascribing suspicious aims to the ACLU moves the debate into a more complicated area. The ACLU is not opposed simply because it has fought to block government-sanctioned religious displays, causing local upset and anger.

Similarly, it is not opposed merely because it defends the rights of some of society's most unpopular groups, Nazis, for example. The deeper issue is civil liberties themselves. Here we have a new question: why does an organization that fights for the very foundations of the nation's commitment to liberty even have to exist?

The ACLU's answer is rather simple. Civil liberties, it argues, exist only when everyone enjoys them. In other words, there is no such thing as freedom for some without freedom for all, including those individuals whom the majority may hate or whom the government seeks to silence. Loren Siegel, ACLU director of public education, wrote that the United States

was founded upon not one, but two great principles. The first, democracy, is the more familiar: The majority rules. The second principle, liberty, is not as well understood. Even in our democracy, the majority's rule is not unlimited. There are certain individual rights and liberties, enshrined in the bill of rights, that are protected from the "tyranny of the majority." Just because there are more whites than blacks in this country does not, for example, mean that whites can vote to take the vote away from blacks. And just because there are more heterosexuals than homosexuals should not mean that the majority can discriminate with impunity against the minority.

But civil liberties "are not self-enforcing," Siegel adds. Moreover, nadine strossen, ACLU president, points out that victories in civil liberties need to be continually re-won. It is not the habit of enemies to grant their opponents the same constitutional rights that they themselves enjoy; plainly, it is the habit of enemies to ignore, restrict, or even crush those rights. Not by accident, the government or a majority of voters can do this; the weak and the few cannot. Thus, the ACLU's commitment is precisely to those whose purchase on freedom is slim—not because the ACLU is necessarily in favor of their cause, but because it is in favor of upholding their rights.

That argument sounds nice on paper, opponents say, but it is neither practical nor sensible at all times in real life. Indeed, they ask, what about the majority—why must it suffer to please the few in its midst who cause trouble, such as criminals? This is the point that Bush wanted to make with his famous "criminal's lobby" blast: the civil liberties of criminals should not be upheld at the expense of the civil liberties of law-abiding citizens. Bush, like other critics, turned this charge into a broader indictment of the ACLU: in his 1988 campaign for the presidency, he accused Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis of being a "card-carrying member of the ACLU." The term card-carrying resonates in U.S. political history; it comes from the era of anti-Communist witch hunts and implies anti-Americanism. Ira Glasser, the ACLU's executive director at the time, indignantly replied to Bush in the Boston Globe: "The vice president feels it is politically expedient to beat up on us, and if the only way that he can carry it off is by engaging in McCarthyism and distorting our record, then he is willing to do it."

Despite the conservative claim that the ACLU is a liberal group, the political left also has taken shots at it. In the 1980s and 1990s, some feminists opposed the ACLU's absolute defense of free speech. These critics were particularly distressed by the organization's support of the speech rights of pornographers. Others on the left, notably academics, resent the ACLU's opposition to so-called hate-speech codes that colleges and universities have imposed on campuses to protect members of minorities from others' abusive expression. Such issues have caused dissent even among the ranks of the ACLU itself, leading some to argue that the organization should emphasize civil rights over civil liberties, that is, jettison its traditional mission in order to focus more specifically on the rights of women and racial minorities. In the ACLU's 1992–93 annual report, Strossen dismissed this argument. Liberty and equality, she wrote, are not mutually exclusive. "How can individual liberty be secure if some individuals are denied their rights because they belong to certain societal groups? How, on the other hand, can equality for all groups be secure if that equality does not include the exercise of individual liberty?"

Critics contend, however, that making individual rights paramount can produce results that clash with community values. They note that the ACLU has fought the implementation of the Children's Internet Protection Act, including a provision that requires public libraries receiving federal technology funds to install filters on their computers or risk losing aid. With the First Amendment seemingly protecting most forms of Internet pornography, the act seeks to prevent access on public library computers, so as to prevent children from seeing disturbing images as they walk by. The act even permits adults to ask the librarians to turn off the filters. Nevertheless, the ACLU persuaded a federal court in 2002 that the law violated the First Amendment. Critics of the ACLU cite this as just one more example of blind devotion to an absolutist view of free expression.

In the aftermath of the september 11th attacks of 2001, the ACLU has exposed itself to more criticism over its objections to new federal laws and orders. It objected to proposed provisions of the usa patriot act in October 2001, at a time when very few voices were raised about protecting the right to privacy and preventing the government from gaining more police powers. It has also challenged the indefinite detention of aliens who are suspected of terrorist activities and ties.

The ACLU promises to remain on the forefront of the debate over the scope of the Bill of Rights and the desire of citizens to be protected by their government. The war on terrorism that began in September 2001 was expected to generate many legal challenges by the ACLU as the federal government asserted new found powers to monitor, investigate, and detain suspected terrorists. It was expected that the ACLU would continue to find itself isolated at times as it battled for its vision of a free society.

further readings

Schulhofer, Stephen J. 2002. The Enemy Within: Intelligence Gathering, Law Enforcement, and Civil Liberties in the Wake of September 11. New York: Twentieth Century Fund.

Strossen, Nadine. 2001. Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights. New York: New York Univ. Press.

The ACLU is often called the nation's foremost advocate of individual rights. With dozens of Supreme Court cases and thousands of state and federal rulings behind it, the organization is a firmly established force in U.S. law. Its reach goes beyond the courts. Watchful of lawmakers, it frequently issues public statements on pending national, state, and local legislation, campaigning for and against laws. It also pursues special projects on women's rights, reproductive freedom, children's rights, capital punishment, prisoners' rights, national security, and civil liberties. In these areas, its goal is both to defend existing liberties and to expand them into quarters where they are not generally enjoyed.

The election of george w. bush as president in 2000 and the gain of Republican seats in both the House and Senate in 2002 gave increased urgency to the ACLU's advocacy for civil liberties. In addition to supporting the right to partial-birth abortion, the ACLU has fought for gay and lesbian rights, the rights of library patrons to view unrestricted internet sites, and affirmative action programs for colleges and universities throughout the country. The ACLU has opposed numerous initiatives of the Bush administration, in particular, federal funding for faith-based drug treatment programs and the attempts to give sweeping new powers to domestic law enforcement and intelligence agencies after the September 11th attacks in 2001.

The ACLU's national headquarters is in New York City. The group maintains a legislative office in Washington, D.C., and a regional office in Atlanta, along with chapters in each state. These state chapters follow the decisions of the national executive board yet are also free to pursue cases on their own.

further readings

ACLU. ACLU's Seventy-five Most Important Supreme Court Cases. Briefing paper.

——. The ACLU Today. Briefing paper.

——. Church and State. Briefing paper.

——. Guardian of Liberty. Briefing paper.

American Civil Liberties Union. Available online at <> (accessed May 30, 2003).

Hershkoff, Helen. 1997. The Rights of the Poor: The Authoritative ACLU Guide to Poor People's Rights. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Univ. Press.

Walker, Samuel. 1999. In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.


Baldwin, Roger Nash; Bill of Rights; Civil Rights; Frankfurter, Felix; Palmer, Alexander Mitchell; Strossen, Nadine M.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"American Civil Liberties Union." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"American Civil Liberties Union." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . (December 14, 2017).

"American Civil Liberties Union." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

125 Broad Street, 18th Floor
New York, New York 10004-2400
Telephone: (212) 549-2500
Fax: (212) 549-2646
Web site:

Not-for-Profit Company
Incorporated: 1920
Employees: 170
Sales: $42.2 million (2002)
NAIC: 813310 Social Advocacy Organizations

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a New York City-based nonpartisan, not-for profit corporation dedicated to the preservation and extension of constitutional liberties. Often controversial, the ACLU works through the legal system to forward its mission, initiating test cases and becoming involved in cases initiated by others. All told, the organization takes part in about 6,000 cases each year, primarily divided into three general areas: freedom of expression, equality before the law, and due process of law for everyone. Moreover, the ACLU runs nine ongoing national projects devoted to specific areas of civil liberties: AIDS, capital punishment, drug policy, litigation, lesbian and gay rights, immigrants' rights, prisoners' rights, reproductive freedom, voting rights, and women's rights. With a base of nearly 400,000 members and supporters, the organization employs some 300 staff people. In addition, it is assisted by thousands of volunteers, many are whom are attorneys working pro bono. In addition to its Manhattan headquarters, the ACLU maintains a legislative office in Washington, D.C., and a Southern Regional Office in Atlanta, Georgia, dedicated to voting rights and race discrimination. The ACLU also has 57 independently run affiliates that are active in every state as well as in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. The organization is governed by an 83-member Board of Directors that includes a member from each state plus at-large members. The ACLU, which receives no government money, is funded by annual dues and contributions from members, as well as individual donations and grants from private foundations.

Key Founder Born to Wealthy Family in 1800s

The person most responsible for the founding and rise of the ACLU was Roger Nash Baldwin, the oldest child of a prominent Boston, Massachusetts-area family, whose heritage could be traced back to at least two people who came to America on the Mayflower. His father was a wealthy leather merchant, his mother, Lucy Cushing Nash, was an early feminist, and many of his relatives were active in social causes in keeping with the sense of noblesse oblige that permeated the upper classes of the day. As a teenager, he was involved in efforts at social reform through the Unitarian Church, to which his and other aristocratic families belonged. Baldwin enrolled at Harvard University in 1901, where he soon became a believer in the Progressive Movement that was taking place across America. After earning degrees in anthropology in 1905, Baldwin turned for career advice to his father's lawyer, Louis D. Brandeis, who would one day become a Supreme Court justice. It was Brandeis who convinced Baldwin to forego a business career in favor of devoting his life to social service.

In 1906, Baldwin moved to St. Louis on a twofold mission: to create a sociology department at Washington University, where he would also teach courses, and to head Self Culture Hall, a settlement house. During the next several years, Baldwin earned a national reputation as a social worker and became exposed to such influential political activists as Emma Goldman, who furthered the process of chipping away at his upper-crust sensibilities. For a time, he was even engaged to radical activist Anna Louise Strong. He gained national prominence in 1910 by being named the president of the St. Louis Civic League, which was instrumental in bringing "clean" government to St. Louis. When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914 and soon threatened to envelop the United States, he opposed his country's entry. After America joined the war on the side of Great Britain and France, Baldwin moved to New York City in March 1917 to become secretary of the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), founded two years earlier by such well-known social activists as Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, and Lillian Wald.

In May 1917, the U.S. Congress passed the Selective Service Act that established a military draft, and Baldwin was named to head AUAM's Civil Liberties Bureau (CLB), which would take on the plight of conscientious objectors and opponents to the war. At this stage, Baldwin still believed that he could draw on his upper-class connections to influence government officials and work cooperatively to come to reasonable accommodations, hoping to employ the CLB as an intermediary between authorities and conscientious objectors. Cordial relations between Baldwin and the government, however, gradually eroded. He condemned the harsh treatment to which conscientious objectors were often subjected, and he was very much opposed to the threat to free speech that came with the passage of the Espionage Act (later known as the Sedition Act). The legislation also caused division within the leadership of AUAM, concerned that CLB's work might put AUAM in violation of the law. In order to provide some insulation, a Civil Liberties Committee was formed in July 1917, and the break was finalized in October of that year when Baldwin and Crystal Eastman established the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB).

By now, from the perspective of many U.S. officials, Baldwin was nothing less than a menace. He was spied on by Military Intelligence and NCLB's offices were raided in August 1918. The following month he was indicted for refusing to comply with the new Selective Service Act. In a celebrated trial, he was sentenced to a year in prison, which proved to offer little hardship for Baldwin. While working as a cook and a gardener, he established a reading and writing program for inmates, a prisoner's welfare league, and even a dramatic society and glee club, relying heavily on the political influence of sympathetic socialites.

ACLU Emerges in 1920

Baldwin was released from prison after ten months and, rather than immediately resume his duties at the NCLB, he decided to taste the working life for several weeks. He performed stints as a day laborer before becoming a scab at the Homestead Steel Mills, where he briefly operated as a spy for the striking union before being found out and fired. He returned to the NCLB during the final weeks of 1919, at a time when a "Red Scare" led to the government passing new sedition laws that allowed participants in "un-American" activities to be arrested without a warrant and held without trial. It was also a time of considerable labor unrest. To help refocus the mission of the NCLB away from conscientious objectors to the championing of labor rights, Baldwin felt it was necessary to change the name of the organization. The name he chose was the American Civil Liberties Union, which succeeded the NCLB in January 1920 following a reorganization. It was co-directed by Baldwin and NCLB attorney Albert DeSilver. The ACLU attempted to operate on funds raised from annual dues of $2, and even though it boasted 1,000 members by the end of its first year, the organization was strapped for cash. A key benefactor of the early years was Charles Garland, a rich Bostonian who donated money that was used to establish the American Fund for Public Service, which then financed legal defense cases and supported other efforts at social reform.

When the ACLU launched its activities, civil liberty violations took place on a number of fronts in America, as exemplified by a sampling of the incidents that caught the organization's attention in its first year: two organizers of the Nonpartisan League were forced by a mob to tar themselves in Kansas; an Oregon mayor refused to allow muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens to lecture at a public meeting that was deemed to be un-American; seven people in Washington state were jailed for two months for selling a union newspaper; a man in Massachusetts was denied citizenship because of his religious stand as a conscientious objector; and, in Alabama, union coal miners were denied the right to meet for any purpose. In the first several years of its existence, the ACLU was especially devoted to keeping tabs on the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, whose members number one million in 1921. At the time, the Justice Department made little effort to monitor the Klan. In keeping with the ACLU's mission to protect the rights of those individuals that government leaders might disagree with, the ACLU also represented the KKK, supporting the group's right, in the words of Baldwin, "to parade in their nightgowns and pillowcases, and their right to burn fiery crosses on private property." In some cases, the ACLU took the side of the KKK over the NAACP.

"Monkey Trial" of 1925 Puts ACLU on the Map

The case that first brought widespread notoriety to the ACLU was the 1925 "Monkey Trial" that became the basis for the play, and later film, Inherit the Wind. In this case, the ACLU was looking to make a "friendly challenge" to a Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The ACLU openly advertised in the state for a teacher willing to participate. The greater purpose, however, was to construct a case that could then be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court. The man induced to help was John T. Scopes, who coached football and taught physics on a part-time basis. He was talked into participating in the test case by a local booster who thought the community might benefit from the publicity. Scopes barely qualified for his role, since he never actually taught evolution, but he had once used an evolution textbook to help some students prepare for a test. As it turned out, the friendly challenge drew international attention, setting the standard for all modern media circuses to follow, due in large part to the men who stepped forward to argue the case. Representing Scopes was famed criminal attorney Clarence Darrow, who made his reputation representing labor leaders. On the other side was William Jennings Bryan, who was famous for his unsuccessful presidential campaigns and skills as an orator. When the case was stripped down, the question presented to the jury was simple: did Scopes violate the Tennessee law or not. In the end, Scopes was convicted and fined $100, but the subsequent appeal thwarted the ACLU's larger plans. The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed Scopes conviction on a technicality but upheld the statute, leaving the ACLU with nothing to appeal. The Tennessee law stood for another 40 years. Moreover, many textbook publishers, in light of the Scopes trial, chose to simply drop Darwin's theory of evolution from their textbooks rather than face legal complications. As a consequence, the ACLU's most celebrated case was perhaps its greatest defeat.

Company Perspectives:

The ACLU's mission is to fight civil liberties violations wherever and whenever they occur.

Over the course of its first 25 years, the ACLU was involved in other noteworthy cases. It fought the U.S. Customs Service ban on the sale of James Joyce's novel Ulysses, lifted in 1933. The organization was successful in its arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1939 when it opposed a Jersey City ban on political meetings held by union organizers. During World War II, the ACLU took the highly unpopular stand of opposing the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans, an act for which the U.S. Congress would formally apologize 50 years later. It was also during the war years that Baldwin and the ACLU ended a dalliance with communism, prompted by the Nazi-Soviet pact that Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler signed in 1939. Baldwin led the move to purge communist members from the ranks of the ACLU, an act which many in the organization considered a major breach in principle and almost resulted in splitting the organization in two.

Baldwin was involved in a number of outside causes that adversely affected the ACLU's operation. In 1949, when he turned 65, he retired as executive director, after which he played an elder statesman's role, devoting much of his time to the subject of international civil liberties. He enjoyed robust health and was quite active until his early 90s. He died on August 26, 1981 at the age of 97. In his biography of Baldwin, Robert C. Cottrell reflected on Baldwin's achievements: "During the six-decade span of his involvement with the modern civil liberties movement, Baldwin witnessed expanded protection of key portions of the Bills of Rights. The ACLU leaders, guided by their long-time executive director, waged public relations wars, undertook groundbreaking litigation, and wrestled with public officials, while demanding an expansive interpretation of the Bill of Rights. Consequently, by the close of Baldwin's life, First Amendment provisions involving freedom of speech, the press, assemblage, and religion had been brought closer to actuality than at any point in American history."

The ACLU after Baldwin

In the postwar years, during the height of the Cold War, the ACLU fought against loyalty oaths that federal workers were enjoined to swear and state laws that required schoolteachers to avow they were not members of the Communist Party. The ACLU furthered its commitment to racial justice by involving itself in the cause of school desegregation in the 1950s (in particular the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education) and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Also during the 1960s, the ACLU opposed the criminal prohibition of drugs, and thereafter opposed the on-going "war on drugs." Reproductive rights came to the forefront in the early 1970s with the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decisions Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, which extended the right to privacy to include the right of a woman to choose abortion. With the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, the ACLU opposed the "ultimate sanction" on grounds that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment and disproportionately affected minorities and the poor.

In 1988, the ACLU became swept up in national politics when Republican George H.W. Bush made Democrat Michael Dukakis's ACLU membership an issue in the presidential campaign. While the Republicans were successful in vilifying the ACLU with a large section of the American public, the attention that came to the organization also led to a surge in memberships and fund raising. The ACLU's reputation among conservatives was further hardened in 1989 when it was successful in having the U.S Supreme Court invalidate a Texas law that made flag desecration a punishable offense. The ACLU then succeeded in having the Supreme Court recognize the civil rights of gays and lesbians as a result of the 1996 case Romer v. Evans. Over the years, the ACLU has also riled people on the left. The most celebrated example was its 1978 defense of a neo-Nazi group to march through Skokie, Illinois, an act that led to a decline in ACLU membership.

Key Dates:

American Union Against Militarism (AUAM) formed.
AUAM forms National Civil Liberties Bureau.
AUAM is reorganized as ACLU, headed by Roger Baldwin.
Scopes "Monkey Trial" takes place.
Baldwin retires from active involvement.
Baldwin dies at the age of 97.
ACLU gains notoriety in U.S. presidential campaign.
ACLU wins a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that gains civil rights for gays and lesbians.

Critics from both the left and the right have contended that the ACLU altered its mission over the final 30 years of the 20th century. In a 1988 article in The New Republic, Mark S. Campisano wrote, "The ACLU has strayed very far from its old agenda of civil liberties and civil rights. A new agenda of exotic leftwing causes now occupies most of the Unions time and energy." In the words of Christopher Clausen, writing for The New Leader in 1994, "The organization is obsessed with abortion." A second area of undue focus, in his opinion, was the organization's "dogged support for the discriminatory forms of affirmative action." The ACLU also faced questions from within its own ranks. A 1993 Time magazine article reported: "One essential conflict is between strict libertarians, for whom individual rights are as sacred as Moses' tablets, and new-breed egalitarians who favor minority and feminist causes and are more willing to see civil liberties give ground in the name of justice and equality." Time also noted that "Insiders disagree on whether the shifting views are fostered by the A.C.L.U's in-house affirmative-action plan that requires the board, formerly dominated by white males, to be at least 50 percent female and 20 percent minority. Whatever the reason, old soldiers like Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz asserts that the 'A.C.L.U. is a very different organization today.' To him, the key tenet of the A.C.L.U. faith is support for free-speech rights for 'causes that you despise.' Without that, 'all you are is a political activist.' " Opposed to this old guard thinking were ACLU board members like "gay activist Tom Stoddard, who says the absolutists are seeking 'otherworldly vindication on one constitutional right without recognizing that all rights have value and can be reconciled.' To him, both equality and liberty must be weighed and many rights enshrined." Ever controversial, the ACLU entered a new century continuing to play its role as a national gadfly.

Further Reading

Campisano, Mark S., "Card Games: The ACLU's Wrong Course," New Republic, October 31, 1988, p. 10.

Carlson, Margaret, "Spotlight on the A.C.L.U.," Time, October 10, 1988, p. 36.

Clausen, Christopher, "Taking Liberties with the ACLU," New Leader, August 15, 1994, p. 12.

Cottrell, Robert C., Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, 504 p.

Garey, Diane, Defending Everybody, New York: TV Books, 1998, 240 p.

Ostling, Richard N., "A.C.L.U.Not All That Civil," Time, April 26, 1993, p. 31.

Ed Dinger

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)." International Directory of Company Histories. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)." International Directory of Company Histories. . (December 14, 2017).

"American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)." International Directory of Company Histories. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from

American Civil Liberties Union


AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION. In 1920, the Boston Brahmin Roger Baldwin, Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, social worker Jane Addams, and a small band of colleagues established the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Avowedly pro-labor, the ACLU followed in the path laid by the National Civil Liberties Bureau, which had been created during World War I to safeguard the rights of political dissidents and conscientious objectors. Operating out of a ramshackle office on the outskirts of Greenwich Village, the ACLU's executive committee, headed by Baldwin, discussed the "Report on the Civil Liberty Situation for the Week." Encouraged by Baldwin, the ACLU championed the First Amendment rights of some of the least-liked groups and individuals in the United States, including the American Communist Party and the Ku Klux Klan. The ACLU relied on lawyers throughout the country to volunteer their services involving test cases. Among those heeding the call were the Harvard law professor Felix Frankfurter and Clarence Darrow, perhaps the best-known litigator in the United States during the early twentieth century.

Still in its infancy, the ACLU participated in several cases that became celebrated causes for liberals and radicals throughout the United States. These included the Sacco-Vanzetti Case, in which two Italian-born anarchists were accused of having committed a murder involving a paymaster; the Scopes Trial, in which John T. Scopes, a part-time biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, deliberately violated a state statute that proscribed the teaching of evolution in public schools; and the Scottsboro Case, in which eight indigent African-American youths, dubbed the "Scottsboro Boys," were accused of raping two white women near a small Alabama town. The ACLU's association with the cases—particularly the Scopes "Monkey Trial"—garnered considerable attention for the organization, as did its establishment of a national committee to bring about the release of the labor radicals Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, who had been convicted of planting a bomb that killed ten people during a "Preparedness Parade" in San Francisco in 1916, prior to America's entry into World War I. Baldwin referred to the case as "the most scandalous of any frame-up of labor leaders in our history." In contrast, the ACLU initially displayed little interest in contesting Prohibition, and ACLU leaders like Baldwin, Thomas, and John Haynes Holmes demonstrated a puritanical attitude regarding such controversial writings as D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), despite having earlier challenged censorship in cities like Boston. Nevertheless, by the early 1930s, the ACLU, through its attorneys or amici curiae briefs, had helped to establish the principle that the rights articulated in the First Amendment were "preferred" ones, entitled to considerable protection against government encroachments.

Baldwin's directorship and his involvement with a series of united front and Popular Front groups identified the ACLU with the American left. In 1938, critics called for an investigation of the ACLU by the newly formed House Committee on Un-American Activities. Concerns about such a possibility, coupled with the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact later that year, produced a decision that proved far-reaching for both the ACLU and American politics in general. In early 1940, the national office of the ACLU adopted an exclusionary policy that precluded board members from belonging to totalitarian organizations. This resulted in the infamous "trial" of longtime ACLU activist and Communist Party member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn before her fellow ACLU board members and her removal from the board. During the postwar red scare, an increasing number of organizations adopted similar anti-communist provisions.

The ACLU's stellar reputation for protecting the rights of all was called into question during World War II when the ACLU national leadership, despite Baldwin's opposition, failed to contest the internment of Japanese-Americans and aliens. In the early Cold War era, as redbaiting intensified, the organization provided little support for leftists who were coming under attack. Following Baldwin's retirement in early 1950, the ACLU, in keeping with its recently acquired respectability, became more of a mass organization. It also began to focus less exclusively on First Amendment issues. It supported the legal action by the NAACP that eventually culminated in the monumental ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), which declared that segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment. By the 1960s, the ACLU was concentrating more regularly on the right to privacy, equal protection, and criminal procedural rights.

Not all were pleased with the expanded operations of the ACLU, particularly a decision in 1977 to back the right of American Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, where many Holocaust survivors from Hitler's Europe resided. Thousands resigned their ACLU memberships, and financial pressures mounted. The organization again proved to be something of a political lightning rod when Republican Party presidential candidate George H. W. Bush, in the midst of a nationally televised debate in 1988, attacked his Democratic Party opponent, Michael Dukakis, as "a card-carrying member of the ACLU." Spearheaded by Executive Director Ira Glasser, the ACLU continued to be involved in such controversial issues as creationism and prayer in the school, which it opposed, and abortion and gay rights, which it championed. As of 2001, the ACLU had approximately 300,000 members.


Cottrell, Robert C. Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Walker, Samuel. In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the American Civil Liberties Union. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Robert C.Cottrell

See alsoCivil Rights and Liberties ; First Amendment .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"American Civil Liberties Union." Dictionary of American History. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"American Civil Liberties Union." Dictionary of American History. . (December 14, 2017).

"American Civil Liberties Union." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from

American Civil Liberties Union

American Civil Liberties Union. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), founded in 1920, is a nonprofit organization devoted to the defense of individual rights under the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU was an outgrowth of the National Civil Liberties Bureau, founded (1917) to provide assistance to conscientious objectors (COs) and to defend the free speech rights of critics of U.S. involvement in World War I. Roger Baldwin, founder and executive director of the ACLU from 1920 to 1950, was a pacifist as well as a civil libertarian, as were many other early ACLU leaders. Defending the right of individuals to criticize the government, even during wartime, became the cornerstone of the ACLU's approach to civil liberties.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the organization opposed compulsory military training in public schools and colleges. During World War II, the ACLU helped establish the National Committee on Conscientious Objectors to provide assistance to COs. It also provided legal assistance in Supreme Court cases challenging the president's order directing the military to relocate and intern Japanese Americans on the West Coast.

During the Vietnam War, the ACLU assisted COs and defended the free speech rights of opponents of the war. In 1970, it declared the U.S. military involvement unconstitutional on the grounds that Congress had not officially declared war. The ACLU and its New York State affiliate provided legal counsel in several cases challenging the legality of the war. The organization strongly supported the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which sought to limit the presidential power to send U.S. military forces into combat without congressional approval.
[See also Conscientious Objection.]


Leon Friedman and and Burt Neuborne , Unquestioning Obedience to the President, 1972.
Samuel Walker , In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU, 1990.

Samuel Walker

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"American Civil Liberties Union." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"American Civil Liberties Union." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . (December 14, 2017).

"American Civil Liberties Union." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from

American Civil Liberties Union

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), nonpartisan organization devoted to the preservation and extension of the basic rights set forth in the U.S. Constitution. Founded (1920) by such prominent figures as Jane Addams, Helen Keller, Judah Magnus, and Norman Thomas, the ACLU grew out of earlier groups that had defended the rights of conscientious objectors during World War I. Its program is directed toward three major areas of civil liberties: inquiry and expression, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion; equality before the law for everyone, regardless of race, nationality, sex, political opinion, or religious belief; and due process of law for all. Its most significant and successful activities have involved court tests of important civil liberties issues. Since its founding, the ACLU has participated directly or indirectly in almost every major civil liberties case contested in American courts. Among these are the so-called Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee (1925), the Sacco-Vanzetti case (1920s), the federal court test (1933) that ended the censorship of James Joyce's Ulysses, and the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) school desegregation case. In the late 1970s the ACLU defended the right of a neo-Nazi group to march in Skokie, Ill. The ACLU has about 275,000 members in its state organizations. The national office, located in New York City, also supports lobbying and educational activity on behalf of civil liberties issues.

See J. L. Gibson and R. D. Bingham, Civil Liberties and Nazis (1985).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"American Civil Liberties Union." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"American Civil Liberties Union." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 14, 2017).

"American Civil Liberties Union." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from


ACLU • abbr. American Civil Liberties Union.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"ACLU." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"ACLU." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (December 14, 2017).

"ACLU." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"ACLU." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"ACLU." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 14, 2017).

"ACLU." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"ACLU." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"ACLU." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . (December 14, 2017).

"ACLU." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from


ACLU American Civil Liberties Union
• American College of Life Underwriters

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"ACLU." The Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"ACLU." The Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations. . (December 14, 2017).

"ACLU." The Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from