Guardian of Liberty: American Civil Liberties Union
The American Civil Liberties Union is the nation's foremost advocate of
individual rights - litigating, legislating and educating the public on a
broad array of issues affecting individual freedom in the United States. This
is a general introduction and history to the ACLU, the first in a series of
briefing papers, produced by the ACLU Office of Public Education, explain the
organization's position on a range of specific civil liberties issues.
- Collen O'Connor, Director of Public Education
The American system of government is built on two basic,
counter-balancing principles: 1) that the majority of the people, through
democratically elected representatives, governs the country and 2) that the
power of even a democratic majority must be limited to insure individual
rights. In every era of American history, the government has tried to expand
its authority at the expense of individual rights. The American Civil
Liberties Union exists to make sure that doesn't happen, and to fight back
when it does.
The ACLU is not a public defender like Legal Services or Legal Aid. It
does not handle criminal cases or civil disputes or choose clients according
to financial criteria. Nor do we take political sides; we are neither liberal
nor conservative, Republican or Democrat. The ACLU is a nonprofit,
nonpartisan, 250,000 member public interest organization devoted exclusively
to protecting the basic civil liberties of all Americans, and extending them
to groups that have traditionally been denied them. In its almost seven
decades in existence, the ACLU has become a national institution, and is
widely recognized as the country's foremost advocate of individual rights.
"Defend the bastards."
- from a Miami man who sent a check to the ACLU
to assist in the 1977 defense of the Nazi's
right to march in Skokie, Illinois
THE ACLU MANDATE
The mission of the ACLU is to assure that the Bill of Rights - amendments
to the Constitution that guard against unwarranted governmental control - are
preserved for each new generation. To understand the ACLU's purpose, it is
important to distinguish between the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The
Constitution itself, whose bicentennial we celebrated in 1987, authorizes the
government to act. The Bill of Rights limits that authority.
What rights are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights?
First Amendment Rights:
These include freedom of speech, association and assembly, freedom of the
press, and freedom of religion, including the strict separation between church
Equal protection of the law:
The right to equal treatment regardless of race, sex, religion, national
origin, sexual orientation, age, physical handicap, or other such
classification. These rights apply to the voting booth, the classroom, the
workplace and the courts.
Due process of law:
The right to be treated fairly when facing criminal charges or other serious
accusations that can result in such penalties as loss of employment, exclusion
from school, denial of housing, or cut-off of benefits.
The right to privacy:
The right to a guaranteed zone of personal privacy and autonomy which cannot
be penetrated by the government or by other institutions, like employers, with
substantial influence over an individual's rights.
Expanding those protections:
The ACLU works to extend protection to racial minorities, homosexual,
mental patients, prisoners, soldiers, children in the custody of the state,
the handicapped, and Native Americans.
A BRIEF HISTORY
When Roger Baldwin founded the ACLU in 1920, civil liberties were in a
sorry state. Citizens were sitting in jail for holding antiwar views. U.S.
Attorney General Palmer was conducting raids upon aliens suspected of holding
unorthodox opinions. Racial segregation was the law of the land and violence
against blacks was routine. Sex discrimination was firmly institutionalized;
it wasn't until 1920 that women even got the vote. Constitutional rights for
homosexuals, the poor, prisoners, mental patients, and other special groups
were literally unthinkable. And, perhaps most significantly, the Supreme Court
had yet to uphold a single free speech claim under the First Amendment.
"We must remember that a right lost to one is lost to all. The ACLU
remembers and it acts. The cause it serves so well is an imperative of
- William Reece Smith, Jr., former President,
American Bar Association
The ACLU was the first public interest law firm of its kind, and
immediately began the work of transforming the ideals contained in the Bill of
Rights into living, breathing realities.
1920: The Palmer Raids
In its first year the ACLU worked at combating the deportation of aliens for
their radical beliefs (ordered by Attorney General Palmer), opposing attacks
on the rights of the Industrial Workers of the World and trade unions to hold
meetings and organize, and securing release from prison for hundreds sentenced
during the war for expression of antiwar opinions.
1925: The Scopes Case
When Tennessee's new antievolution law became effective in March 1925 the ACLU
at once sought a test of the statute's attack on free speech and secured John
T. Scopes, a young science teacher, as a plaintiff. Clarence Darrow, a member
of the Union's National Committee and an agnostic, headed the ACLU's volunteer
defense team. Scopes was convicted and fined $100. On appeal, the Tennessee
Supreme Court upheld the statute but reversed the conviction.
1933: The Ulysses Case
Federal Judge John M. Woolsey in New York rendered a historic anticensorship
decision that admitted James Joyce's Ulysses into the U.S. after a long legal
battle supported by the ACLU.
1939: Mayor Hague
Mayor Frank "I am the law" Hague of Jersey City claimed the right to deny free
speech to anyone he thought radical. The ACLU took Hague to the Supreme Court,
which ruled that public places such as streets and parks belong to the people,
not the mayor.
1942: Japanese Americans
Two and a half months after Pearl Harbor, 110,000 Japanese Americans,
two-thirds of whom were citizens, were evacuated from their West Coast homes
and relocated in a series of inland U.S. concentration camps. The episode was
a national tragedy, rightfully called by the ACLU "the worst single wholesale
violation of civil rights of American citizens in our history." The strongest
voices against evacuation and relocation came from the ACLU affiliates on the
1950: Loyalty Oaths
During the Cold War era after World War II, Congress and many state
legislatures passed loyalty oath laws requiring one group or another,
particularly public school teachers, to swear that they were not Communists or
members of any "subversive organizations." Throughout the decade the ACLU
fought a running battle against the government's loyalty-security program.
1954: School Segregation
On May 17, 1954, in Brown v. The Board of Education, the Supreme Court issued
its historic decision that segregation in public schools violates the 14th
Amendment. The ACLU joined the legal battle that resulted in the Court's
1960: Civil Rights Movement
From the first lunch counter sit-in in 1960 through the freedom rides and
later mass marches, the ACLU supported the civil rights movement's goal of
equality and its means of achieving that goal through peaceful demonstrations.
1973: Impeach Nixon
The ACLU was the first major national organization to call for the impeachment
of President Richard Nixon. The Union listed six grounds for impeachment
affecting civil liberties - specific, proved violations of the right of
political dissent; usurpation of Congressional war-making powers;
establishment of a personal secret police that committed crimes; attempted
interference in the trial of Daniel Ellsburg; distortion of the system of
justice; and perversion of other federal agencies.
1973: Abortion Decriminalized
In Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, the Supreme Court held that the
constitutional right to privacy encompasses a pregnant woman's decision
whether to bear a child or have an abortion. The rulings struck down state
laws that had made the performance of an abortion a criminal act. The ACLU was
and remains active in the courts to protect that right.
1981: Creationism in Arkansas
In Arkansas, 56 years after Scopes, the ACLU challenged a statute that called
for teaching of the biblical story of creation as a "scientific alternative"
to the theory of evolution. The statute, which fundamentalists saw as a model
for other states, was ruled unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge William R.
Overton, Creation science, he said, was not science but religion, and could
not constitutionally be required by state law.
1982: Voting Rights Extended
More than 15 months of grassroots lobbying by the ACLU and other groups paid
off when the Senate, following the example of the House, overwhelmingly voted
to renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
1987: Block Bork
The ACLU, changing a 51-year-old policy of neutrality on Supreme Court
candidates, mounted a national campaign to defeat the nomination of Judge
Robert Bork. Bork, the ACLU said, posed an extraordinary threat to
fundamental liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, and to the role of the
Supreme Court as the guardian of those rights. A majority of Senators agreed
and rejected his nomination.
HOW THE ACLU CHOOSES ITS CASES
Time after time, the ACLU is asked, "Why did you defend that person, that
group? Why did you represent the Nazis in Skokie, Illinois, the Ku Klux Klan
and the Black Panthers?" The ACLU does not defend the person per se, but the
right to express unpopular views - in the belief that once the government is
empowered to violate anyone's rights it will use that power against all of us.
Historically, those most vulnerable, most controversial, or those least
aware of their rights are most frequently the first victims of government
repression. The ACLU works to stop the erosion of liberties before it spreads
out of control.
"The ACLU's 60-year guardianship of the Bill of Rights has done much to
advance the cause of working men and women."
- Douglas Fraser, former president,
United Auto Workers
The ACLU cannot take every case, no matter how legitimate. But the
organization itself selects cases that will have the widest impact on the
greatest number of people - cases that have the potential to break new ground
or establish broad precedents, that in some way can strengthen the freedoms
that we all enjoy.
HOW THE ACLU WORKS
The ACLU has approximately 2,000 attorneys - 66 paid staff members, the
rest volunteers - handling about 6,000 cases annually, making it the largest
private law firm in the country. Indeed, the ACLU appears before the U.S.
Supreme Court more often than any other organization except the U.S. Justice
The ACLU is made up of a network of 51 state affiliates and hundreds of
local chapters guided and coordinated by a national office in New York. The
organization also has a legislative office in Washington, DC that handles
congressional lobbying, and regional offices in Atlanta and Denver. The ACLU
has special national projects devoted to specific civil liberties issues: the
Reproductive Freedom Project, the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, the AIDS and
Civil Liberties Project, the National Prison Project, the National Security
Project, the Children's Rights Project, the Capital Punishment Project, the
Privacy and Technology Project, and the Immigration and Aliens' Rights Task
"We in business applaud and share the ACLU's commitment to preserving the
fundamental principles which have made this country work for over 200 years."
- John H. Filer, former chairman,
Aetna Life and Casualty
The ACLU is governed by an 81-member Board of Directors which has ne
representative from each state affiliate and 30 at-large members elected by
the affiliate and national boards. The affiliate boards, in turn, are elected
by all ACLU members within the state. On a day-to-day basis, each affiliate is
autonomous and makes its own decisions about which cases it will take and
which issues it will emphasize. All collaborate regularly with the national
ACLU in carrying out common goals.
"So long as we have enough people in this country willing to fight for
their rights, we'll be called a democracy."
- ACLU Founder Roger Baldwin
These goals are schedule in a 430-page policy guide that is continually
revised by committees of the national Board. In an emergency, decisions are
made by the Board's Executive Committee.
THE FINANCIAL PICTURE
The ACLU depends exclusively on contributions from its 250,000
dues-paying members and grants from foundations and individuals for its
support. The ACLU does not receive and would not accept government funding.
If you believe your civil liberties have been violated and you need
assistance, contact the local ACLU office listed in your telephone directory.
If you are interested in joining the ACLU or want more information, contact
either your local affiliate or the national ACLU.
ACLU - American Civil Liberties Union
132 West 43rd Street
New York, N.Y. 10036