American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

views updated May 18 2018

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

American Civil Liberties Union

views updated Jun 11 2018


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 casegitlow 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 Presidentgeorge 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.

American Civil Liberties Union

views updated Jun 11 2018

American Civil Liberties Union

125 Broad St,. 18 the Fl.
New York, New York 10004-2400
Telephone: (212) 549-2500
Fax: (212) 549-2646
Web site:



In 1999 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a nonprofit corporation dedicated to the preservation and extension of constitutional liberties, hired its first advertising agency, New York City-based DeVito/Verdi. The ACLU hoped to use consumer-advertising techniques to improve the image of the organization, which in recent decades had become vilified by conservatives in the United States. In addition, the advertising was to be used to call attention to particular causes backed by the ACLU. One issue that received its own campaign within the framework of the greater effort was the racial profiling of motorists stopped by the police.

The ACLU began its racial-profiling campaign in June 1999 by releasing a report on the issue and filing a lawsuit involving one of the cases it documented. In this way the organization was able to generate a great deal of publicity, which was important given the campaign's mere $1 million budget. In late 1999 the first print ads appeared in newspapers. More advertising followed in 2000, including the ACLU's first-ever television spots, which were run in Utah to put pressure on one of the state's senators, Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The print ads succeeded in attracting attention by being provocative. One showed pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Charles Manson with a headline that read: "The man on the left is 75 times more likely to be stopped by the police while driving than the man on the right."

The ACLU's racial-profiling campaign, which ran until the end of 2000, achieved its main goals. It brought a great deal of attention to the practice of racial profiling, forcing police departments to become more cautious about the way they approached traffic stops; also, many state legislatures introduced legislation to curb racial profiling. In addition, the campaign was recognized by the advertising industry, with Advertising Age naming it a Best of Show in its annual awards in 2001.


From its inception in 1920, when it supported the rights of conscientious objectors and opponents of America's entry into World War I, the ACLU never shied away from controversy. Over the decades it made news through its participation in the well-known Scopes Trial that engendered a debate about evolution (1925); fought the U.S. Customs Service ban on the sale of James Joyce's novel Ulysses in 1933; opposed the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II; supported school desegregation in the 1950s and the civil rights movement of the 1960s; opposed the war on drugs starting in the 1960s; supported reproduction rights in the 1970s while also defending the right of a neo-Nazi group to march through the streets of Skokie, Illinois, in 1978. While the latter issue cost the ACLU support from the left wing of the political spectrum, resulting in a dip in membership, in general the ACLU irritated conservatives. In the 1988 presidential campaign, Republican George H. Bush made Democrat Michael Dukakis's ACLU membership an issue, attempting to disparage him by calling him a "card-carrying member of the ACLU." The hatred of the ACLU among conservatives was further hardened in 1989, when the group convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate a Texas law that made flag desecration a punishable offense; likewise, it was later successful with the court when it recognized the civil rights of gays and lesbians in the 1996 case Romer v. Evans.

In early 1999 the ACLU began a general campaign that used the tagline "Support the ACLU." The main issue pursued within it was the practice of police employing racial profiling in stopping motorists, a problem bitterly dubbed "DWB" (driving while black), a play on the term for a real crime, DWI (driving while intoxicated). The ACLU decided to hire an ad agency to develop consumer-style advertising. In doing so, its goals were to counteract the nefarious image that conservatives had created about the organization, to present its core values to the public, and to deal with specific issues.

Four agencies vied for the account, which was awarded in June 1999 to DeVito/Verdi, a firm that was not unfamiliar with controversy. Two years earlier it had run afoul of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani with a bus ad for New York magazine that used the tagline "Probably the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn't taken credit for." After the mayor had the ads removed, the New York chapter of the ACLU helped the magazine successfully argue to an appeals court that, in running the ad, the magazine was within its First Amendment rights. Upon winning the ACLU account, DeVito/Verdi president Ellis Verdi told the press, "We know from personal experience how effective they can be, and we look forward to communicating that message to the public."

The ACLU had never had difficulty generating publicity, but hiring a Madison Avenue ad agency represented a significant shift. "The organization has advertised in the past," wrote Patricia Winters Lauro in the New York Times, in 2000, "but its approach has either been event-driven—the mass arrests of antiwar protesters—or, in recent years, all-text ads about issues that ran on op-ed pages in newspapers."


In press comments issued after the hiring of DeVito/Verdi, ACLU executive director Ira Glasser said, "We want to target opinion leaders." In addition, he noted, "we also want to reach out to a broader audience: those members of the public we call 'persuadables,' that is, people who are highly likely to share the ACLU's core values even if they don't agree with everything we do." Those "persuadables" were not likely to be found among conservatives and those leaning to the political right in America. Rather, the ACLU was hoping to spur into action an audience that was "liberal, progressive, and somewhat shrinking," as described to Lauro by Victor Kamber, head of the Kamber Group, which produced advocacy advertising for such groups as labor unions.

Regarding the racial-profiling component of the general campaign, the advertising tried to influence police departments to change the way the way they stopped motorists based on race. It also reached out to state legislators, whom the ACLU hoped to pressure into passing laws to curtail the practice. The campaign was also directed at victims of racial profiling, urging them to share their stories with the ACLU and to lodge complaints. The more examples of racing profiling the ACLU could gather, the better the case that could be made that the problem was pervasive and required action.


DeVito/Verdi, the advertising agency that produced the ACLU's provocative print ads about racial profiling, was not new to controversy. Shortly after opening shop in 1991, it created an ad for a discount clothier called Daffy's that showed a picture of a straitjacket accompanied by a headline that read: "If you're paying over $100 for a dress shirt, may we suggest a jacket to go with it?" The ad was a hit with consumers and the advertising industry, but because a mental-health advocacy group took exception to the use of a straitjacket in the ad, it led to picketing at an advertising awards show.


Although the ACLU prided itself on being nonparti-san—willing to take on cases regardless of political party affiliation or ideology—the organization found vigorous opposition from Republicans and conservatives, who were not reluctant to characterize the ACLU as the epitome of evil. Right-wing media pundits were especially vituperative in their denunciation of the ACLU and the causes it championed. An example of this criticism came from commentator David Horowitz, who took specific exception to an ACLU print ad concerning the subject of racial profiling. Horowitz espoused the belief that racial profiling was, in fact, good police work that targeted the types of people most likely to commit crimes. After challenging the statistics in the ad as well as asking how many of the questionable traffic stops were conducted by Hispanic or black officers, Horowitz commented, "When facts like these make no difference, it is a sure sign that we are in the presence of an ideological force, disconnected from reality." Horowitz was not alone in opposing the ACLU and in claiming that examples of abuse of police power were simply blown out of proportion by the ACLU and other forces of political correctness.


To build its campaign to combat racial profiling, the ACLU conducted extensive research to determine the depth of the problem and to create documentation. It drew upon government reports, case studies from two dozen states, traffic-stop statistics obtained from ACLU lawsuits, and news stories. A report on the phenomenon of DWB was written, concluding that it was a nationwide problem. The report was released and disseminated shortly after the ACLU undertook a high-profile lawsuit in Oklahoma involving an egregious example of DWB, in which a decorated Army sergeant and his 12-year-old son were held in a grueling two-and-a-half-hour traffic stop. The ACLU was then able to drum up widespread media interest in DWB and to begin the process of educating the public on the subject. A website was also created to serve as a clearinghouse on racial profiling and a place where people could report instances of unwarranted traffic stops, thus providing the ACLU with information and possible cases for litigation.

The next step in the campaign against racial profiling involved consumer advertising. ACLU executive director Glasser told Lauro of the New York Times, "We have taken to advertising for the same reason people who market products have taken to advertising in a dramatic and splashy and visible way. We want to get the message into people's consciousness without forcing them to have to read a law review article."

In December 1999 the ACLU took the unusual and attention-grabbing tactic of promoting its message by running three ads in the classified pages of major newspapers, including the New York Times. Each ad addressed a different example of injustice; one, which ran in the automotive ads, served as the opening salvo in the effort to fight racial profiling. The text read: "Car for Sale: 500 SL Luxury Sport Coupe. Its performance is unmatched on the highway. Unless you're black and driving on some interstates. Then you could be pulled over and searched by state troopers for fitting a drug courier profile. These humiliating and illegal searches are violations of the Constitution and must be fought. Support the ACLU."

The ACLU also ran full-page print ads, which proved controversial in their own way. One involved the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man killed in a hail of gunfire outside his apartment building in New York City. According to witnesses, he was simply returning home from dinner and made the mistake of reaching into his jacket when four plainclothes policemen ordered him to show his hands. They fired 41 shots, 19 of which struck Diallo. The incident had received international press coverage, and the ACLU referenced it in a new ad, which showed 41 bullet holes and the following text: "On February 4th, 1999, the NYPD gave Amadou Diallo the right to remain silent. And they did it without ever saying a word. Firing 41 bullets in 8 seconds, the police killed an unarmed, innocent man. Also wounded was the constitutional right of every American to due process of law. Help us defend your rights. Support the ACLU."

Several months later, in May 2000, the ACLU ran another controversial print ad, which appeared first in the New York Times and a day later in the New Yorker. The ad showed a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., on the left side of the page and notorious killer Charles Manson on the right. The headline read: "The man on the left is 75 times more likely to be stopped by the police while driving than the man on the right."

The ACLU also took its campaign to the local level in September 2000, airing its first-ever paid television spots. They targeted Utah, whose senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican, was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In addition to ads sponsored by national organizations, local branches of the ACLU made their own contributions to the campaign. The Washington state chapter of the ACLU, for example, launched its own advertising effort to call attention to racial profiling.


The ACLU's focus on racial profiling continued until the end of 2000, and then in the spring of 2001 the emphasis switched to the issue of gay civil rights laws. A few months later the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, took place, and the problem of DWB was pushed further aside, as the ACLU began addressing a host of civil-liberties questions that emerged with the launch of the so-called war on terror.

The ACLU was pleased with the results of its campaign. It claimed that many police departments had begun to require that officers record the race of every driver they stopped. In addition, more than 25 states introduced legislation connected to the DWB issue. The campaign was also able to achieve the goal of drawing attention to the issue, receiving a great deal of free media concerning racial profiling. The advertising played an important role in this regard. Although it upset a large number of people, it stood out and met its purpose. The advertising industry recognized the work as well. In 2001 the campaign won an Ad Age Best of Show Award (Magazines category).


"ACLU Attacks Racial Profiling with Ad Citing Dr. King and Charles Manson." Jet, June 26, 2000, p. 38.

Berger, Warren. "Stirring Up Trouble, without Even Trying." One. A Magazine, Fall 2004.

Davilla, Florangela. "ACLU Ads to Spotlight Racial Profiling Issue." Seattle Times, April 20, 2000, p. B5.

Foster, Shawn. "ACLU Targets Hatch for Support of Study." Salt Lake Tribune, September 14, 2000, p. D1.

Horowitz, David. "Racial Profiling: The Death of the Civil Rights Movement.", September 5, 2000. Available from 〈〉

Johannes, Laura. "For the ACLU Head, Terrorism Battle Threatens Liberties." Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2001,p. B1.

Lauro, Patricia Winters. "The A.C.L.U. Is Taking a Provocative Madison Avenue Route to Raise Support for Its Causes." New York Times, May 30, 2000, p. C10.

Lee, Henry K. "Study Indicates Racial Profiling by Oakland Cops." San Francisco Chronicle, May 12, 2001, p. A13.

Sampey, Kathleen. "Taking the Liberties." Adweek, December 13, 1999, p. 7.

Vagnoni, Anthony. "Advertising Age Best Awards." Advertising Age, May 28, 2001, p. S1.

                                                  Ed Dinger

American Civil Liberties Union

views updated May 21 2018

American Civil Liberties Union

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is an organization founded to defend equal rights and civil liberties for all Americans, including the rights to free speech, due process, and freedom of the press.

Founding in 1920

The ACLU has its roots in World War I (1914–18). ACLU founder and long-time president Roger N. Baldwin (1884–1981) strongly opposed the war. He joined the antiwar organization American Union Against Militarism (AUAM) in New York in 1917 and quickly became its most determined crusader. After the war, on January 20, 1920, Baldwin and some of his AUAM associates established a new group they called the American Civil Liberties Union.

Baldwin immediately changed the focus of the ACLU from antiwar issues to civil liberties. The ACLU's sole commitment was to the Bill of Rights , the amendments made to the U.S. Constitution regarding liberties, such as freedom of religion, speech, and press, and the right to privacy, to assemble peacefully, and to petition the government.

The ACLU was founded during a period known as the red scare of 1920, when an overwhelming fear of Communists was sweeping the nation. Communists are people who believe in an economic or political system in which property is owned collectively by all members of society, and labor is organized for the common good. In 1919, the U.S. government launched nationwide raids to round up and detain alleged radicals, who it claimed were part of a Communist plot to destroy the country. The ACLU, still a tiny new organization, worked tirelessly in the courts to stop the government from violating civil liberties, going to court to fight its deportation of foreigners for their political beliefs and its attempts to stop trade unions from organizing.

Famous cases

In 1925, Baldwin wanted to test the powers of his organization on the issue of free speech. He was particularly concerned about a Tennessee law that prohibited teaching the theory of evolution in schools. The theory of evolution is a scientific explanation of how changes may have happened in populations of animals, including human beings, from one

generation to the next, due to genetic modifications. The people responsible for the anti-evolution laws believed that human development was the work of God and should not be explained to students in scientific terms. Baldwin believed the prohibition against teaching a scientific theory was a violation of the right of freedom of speech. He sought out a teacher willing to break Tennessee's anti-evolution law so ACLU lawyers could take the issue to court. John T. Scopes (1900–1970) volunteered, and thus began a trial that came to be called the Scopes monkey trial , because of the evolutionary theory that human beings evolved from apes. Although it lost the case, the ACLU gained notoriety and respect from the trial.

Since the Scopes trial, the ACLU has been involved in many of the most famous controversies in American history, playing a role in an estimated 80 percent of the landmark Supreme Court cases related to individual rights. During World War II (1939–45), the ACLU challenged the internment of Japanese Americans, who were forced to leave their homes and businesses and live in confinement in government camps simply because of their ancestry. (See Japanese Internment Camps .) ACLU lawyers argued a case against religious prayers in public schools, resulting in the Supreme Court ruling that the practice was unconstitutional. The organization defended many protesters of the Vietnam War (1954–75). In 1977, it defended the right of the Nazi Party to hold a demonstration in the predominantly Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois.

ACLU and African American civil rights

From its beginnings, the ACLU made the issue of racial justice a major part of its program. It established a close working relationship with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In the 1940s, ACLU leaders developed a proposal for a broad legal attack on institutionalized segregation , which is the separation of blacks and whites in public places. It eventually became the basis for NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall ‘s (1908–1993) successful legal fight against segregation and led to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. The ACLU was also a supporting force in the African American civil rights movement of the 1960s.

On a number of issues, however, the ACLU and African American civil rights activists have disagreed. On First Amendment (freedom of speech) grounds, the ACLU opposed measures designed to restrict the activities of racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan . It also opposed efforts by the NAACP to have the racist film Birth of a Nation banned in a number of cities. Its position was that the First Amendment guaranteed freedom of speech and assembly to all groups and that authorities could not make distinctions between groups based on their personal beliefs.

The twenty-first century

In 2005, the ACLU had five hundred thousand members and handled about six thousand court cases. Supported through membership dues, tax-deductible contributions, and grants, the ACLU's program consists mainly of litigation (legal proceedings), lobbying (attempts to influence government activities and policies), and public education.

Throughout nearly ninety years of activism, the ACLU remains committed to the fundamental principle that the defense of civil liberties must be universal, or extend to everyone. At times this has resulted in harsh criticism and the loss of some core supporters. The ACLU's defense of the freedom of speech of racist and anti-Semitic groups, such as the Klansmen and American Nazis, deeply angered some of its supporters. The ACLU's position that civil liberties should not be suspended in the interest of civil defense was not popular in the first fearful days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Most historians agree, though, that the ACLU's insistence on upholding the Bill of Rights has remained remarkably evenhanded and courageous amid the changing currents of public opinion.

American Civil Liberties Union

views updated May 29 2018

American Civil Liberties Union

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a private nonprofit organization devoted to the defense of civil liberties. Civil liberties are those rights enjoyed by individuals over and against the power of government. The civil liberties agenda of the ACLU includes First Amendment rights, including freedom of speech, the press, and assembly, the free exercise of religion, and the prohibition of governmental establishment of religion; equal protection under the laws, including equality for racial and ethnic minorities, women, and other groups that have experienced discrimination; due process of law, including protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and protection against self-incrimination; and the right to privacy, including a woman's right to an abortion.

The ACLU was founded in January 1920. It was an outgrowth of the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB), which was created in 1917 to protect freedom of speech during World War I (1914–1918). After the United States entered the war in 1917, the government began to suppress free speech and violated other civil liberties. The NCLB was founded and led by Crystal Eastman (1881–1928) and Roger Nash Baldwin (1884–1981), both of whom were political activists opposed to U.S. involvement in World War I. Eastman soon withdrew because of health problems and Baldwin became the principal NCLB leader. Following the end of World War I, Baldwin and others recognized the need for a permanent organization to fight for civil liberties, and they created the ACLU. Baldwin served as director of the ACLU from 1920 until his retirement in 1950. During those years he was recognized as the principal advocate of civil liberties in the United States.

The ACLU has been involved in many famous cases and controversies, and through its litigation the organization has had a major impact on the development of constitutional law. When it was founded in 1920, there were no U.S. Supreme Court cases upholding First Amendment protection of freedom of speech or other civil liberties. One historian estimates that the ACLU was involved, directly or indirectly, in 80 percent of all recognized landmark civil liberties cases decided by the Supreme Court in the twentieth century. Initially, the ACLU primarily filed amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs in court cases, addressing the civil liberties issues involved.

In the 1960s it began providing direct legal representation to its clients, handling all aspects of a case. In addition to representing people in civil liberties court cases, the ACLU maintains an active lobbying program in Congress and all fifty state legislatures, as well as a public education program on civil liberties issues.

The first major ACLU case involved a challenge to a 1925 Tennessee law outlawing the teaching of evolution in the public schools of that state. The ACLU represented biology teacher John T. Scopes (1900–1970) at his well-known trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in the summer of 1925. The Scopes case is one of the most famous controversies in American history, embodying the principle of freedom to teach unpopular ideas and opposition to the government's establishment of religion.

The ACLU has also been involved in many cases and controversies involving freedom of speech for unpopular ideas. Beginning in the late 1930s, it began to win Supreme Court cases upholding the free-speech rights of communists and other advocates of radical political ideas. One of the most controversial First Amendment controversies occurred in 1977 and 1978, when the ACLU defended the right of a small American Nazi group to hold a demonstration in the heavily Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois. The ACLU was severely criticized for defending the rights of a group associated with the Holocaust, and the organization lost many members as a result. Eventually, the federal courts upheld the ACLU's position on the free speech and assembly rights of hate groups.

During World War II (1939–1945) the ACLU defended the rights of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans who had been evacuated from the west coast of the United States and interned in concentration camps. Because of popular support for the war effort, the ACLU was the only national organization willing to provide significant support for interned Japanese Americans, representing them in several important Supreme Court cases. The Supreme Court upheld the government's actions in Hirabayashi v. United States (1943) and Korematsu v. United States (1944), but public opinion and subsequent court cases have supported the ACLU's argument that the harsh treatment of Japanese Americans during the war was a gross violation of civil liberties.

In the 1960s and 1970s the ACLU's agenda expanded enormously to include new areas of civil liberties, including women's rights, prisoners' rights, children's rights, a woman's right to choose an abortion, and the rights of homosexuals and lesbians. The ACLU has also been involved in issues related to war and national security. It fought violations of civil liberties associated with the Vietnam War (1964–1975) and the war on terrorism that began after September 11, 2001.

Throughout its history the ACLU has been an extremely controversial organization. Because of its support of free speech for communists and other dissidents , political conservatives have repeatedly attacked it as being radical and "un-American." Because of its support of the separation of church and state, including prohibitions on prayer in public schools, many religious leaders have accused the ACLU of being "godless" and of undermining the moral fabric of American society.

The ACLU is a national organization with almost 400,000 members. It maintains a national office in New York City, a legislative office in Washington, D.C., and staffed affiliate offices in all fifty states. The work of the ACLU is financed by members' dues, tax-deductible contributions, and grants to support specific projects. Grants from private foundations and donors support a series of special projects related to such issues as reproductive rights, women's rights, and voting rights.

See also: Amnesty International; Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).


American Civil Liberties Union. <>.

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 ACLU, 2nd ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

Samuel Walker

American Civil Liberties Union

views updated Jun 11 2018


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 .

American Civil Liberties Union

views updated Jun 11 2018


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is the most important national organization dedicated to the protection of individual liberty. It was founded in 1920 by a distinguished group that included roger baldwin, Jane Addams, felix frankfurter, Helen Keller, Scott Nearing, and Norman Thomas.

The principles of the ACLU are contained in the bill of rights : the right to free expression, above all, the freedom to dissent from the official view and majority opinion; the right to equal treatment regardless of race, sex, religion, national origin, or physical handicap; the right to due process in encounters with government institutions—courts, schools, police, bureaucracy—and with the repositories of great private power; the right to be let alone—to be secure from spying, from the unwarranted collection of personal information, and from interference in private lives.

The ACLU has participated in many controversial cases. It represented John Scopes when he was fired for teaching evolution; it fought for the rights of Sacco and Vanzetti; it defended the Scottsboro Boys, who were denied a fair trial for alleged rape (see powell v. alabama; norris v. alabama) ; it fought the Customs Bureau when it banned James Joyce's Ulysses (see united states v." ulysses "); it opposed the censorship of the Pentagon Papers (see new york times v. united states) and religious exercises in schools.

The ACLU has supported racial and religious minorities, the right of labor to organize, and equal treatment for women, and it has opposed arbitrary treatment of persons in closed institutions such as mental patients, prisoners, military personnel, and students.

The concept of civil liberties, as understood by the ACLU, has developed over the years. For example, in the 1960s it declared that capital punishment violated civil liberties because of the finality and randomness of executions; that military conscription, which substantially restricts individual autonomy, violated civil liberties except during war or national emergency; and that the undeclared vietnam war was illegal because of failure to abide by constitutional procedures for committing the country to hostilities.

On the other hand, while endorsing many legal protections for poor people, the ACLU has never held that poverty itself violated civil liberties. In addition, since a cardinal precept of the ACLU is political nonpartisanship, it does not endorse or oppose judicial nominees or candidates for public office.

The ACLU has been frequently attacked as subversive, communistic, and even a "criminals' lobby." Its detractors have not recognized that by representing radicals and despised minorities the ACLU does not endorse their causes but rather the primacy and indivisibility of the Bill of Rights. This confusion cost the ACLU many members when in 1977 it secured the right of American Nazis to demonstrate peacefully in Skokie, Illinois.

The ACLU's national headquarters are in New York City; it maintains a legislative office in Washington, D.C., and regional offices in Atlanta and Denver. Its 250,000 members are organized in branches in all fifty states, which are tied to the national organization through revenue-sharing, participation in policy decisions, and united action on common goals. Each affiliate has its own board of directors and hires its own staff. The ACLU participates annually in thousands of court cases and administrative actions, legislative lobbying, and public education.

Norman Dorsen


Dorsen, Norman 1984 The American Civil Liberties Union: An Institutional Analysis. Tulane Lawyer (Spring) 1984:6–14.

American Civil Liberties Union

views updated May 18 2018

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


views updated May 29 2018

ACLU • abbr. American Civil Liberties Union.


views updated May 17 2018

ACLU American Civil Liberties Union
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