American Civil Liberties Union

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



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

The organization's position on gun control is less well-defined. While the official policy of the national ACLU argues that the Second Amendment provides only for a right to armed state militias [1] (, the issue seems outside of the organization's scope, as it has avoided gun-related cases.

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

History and notable cases

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

In 1925, the ACLU persuaded John T. Scopes to defy Tennessee's anti-evolution law in a court test. Clarence Darrow, a member of the ACLU National Committee, headed Scopes' legal team. The ACLU lost the case and Scopes was fined $100. The Tennessee Supreme Court later reversed the fine, but not the conviction.

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

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

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

In 1977, the ACLU filed suit against the Village of Skokie, Illinois, seeking an injunction against the enforcement of three town ordinances outlawing Nazi parades and demonstrations (Skokie had a large Jewish population). A federal district court struck down the ordinances in a decision eventually affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The ACLU's action in this case led to the resignation of about 15 percent of the membership from the organization (25 percent in Illinois), especially of Jewish members. A cutback in its activities was avoided by a special mailing which elicited $500,000 in contributions. Federal Judge Bernard M. Decker described the principle involved in the case as follows: "It is better to allow those who preach racial hatred to expend their venom in rhetoric rather than to be panicked into embarking on the dangerous course of permitting the government to decide what its citizens may say and hear ... The ability of American society to tolerate the advocacy of even hateful doctrines ... is perhaps the best protection we have against the establishment of any Nazi-type regime in this country."

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

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing debate regarding the proper balance of civil liberties and security including the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, led to a 20% increase in membership between August 2001 and December 2002, when its total enrollment reached 330,000 [2] ( The growth has continued; in August 2004, ACLU membership was at 400,000 [3] (

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

Controversial defense stances

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

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


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

Critics of the ACLU

The ACLU's most vocal critics are generally those who consider themselves conservatives. Many of these conservatives allege that the ACLU has not dedicated itself only to the defense of constitutional rights, but seeks to advance a liberal agenda. Some critics point to its opposition to the death penalty, which has been declared constitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States since 1976, although it had been declared unconstitutional from 1973 to 1976. The ACLU continues to argue that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment restriction against "cruel and unusual punishment" and against international human rights norms. Critics also argue that the ACLU has not been consistent in defending all civil liberties, pointing out that it is not active in protecting gun rights. Critics claim gun rights enjoy the similar constitutional protection as "civil rights" and should be treated equally by the ACLU if it is not motivated by a political agenda. The organization contends that the Second Amendment applies to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia, and the possession of weapons by individuals is not constitutionally protected. [4] (

The Ohio chapter of the ACLU was criticized for presenting the Council on American-Islamic Relations with an award in October, 2003. Critics contend that CAIR is dedicated to the advancement of radical Wahhabism. [5] (

Bill O'Reilly often refers to the ACLU as "the most dangerous organisation in America" on his various broadcasts, and often lambasts the group. Former ACLU member Nat Hentoff has also criticized the organization for promoting affirmative action, where it had once been against all forms of state-sponsored racial and ethnic discrimination, and for supporting government-enforced, liberal speech codes enacted on college campuses and the workplace 1 (

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

Christian and other religious critics

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

In 2004, for example, the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU/SC) threatened to sue the city of Redlands, California if it did not remove a picture of a cross from the city's seal. The ACLU/SC argued that having a cross on the seal amounted to a government-sponsored endorsement of Christianity and violated separation of church and state. The city complied with the ACLU/SC and removed the cross from all city vehicles, business cards, and police badges. However, the issue will be put on the November 2005 ballot[6] ( The ACLU/SC also threatened Los Angeles County, California if it also did not remove an image of a cross from its seal. As in the Redlands case, the county board complied with the demands and voted to remove the cross from its seal as well. There is currently a petition against the changing of the seal, which will end on August 15, 2005 [7] (

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

Many minority religious groups like Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims have at times been defended by the ACLU and are ardent supporters of it. In the Mormon community, the ACLU is viewed positively by some, who cite Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, a case litigated by the ACLU on behalf of a Mormon student concerning school prayer [8] ( However, a good number of Mormons, including some local leaders, are strongly against the activities of the ACLU.[9] (

There have been false allegations that the ACLU has urged the removal of cross-shaped headstones from federal cemeteries and has opposed prayer by soldiers; such charges have been deemed to be urban legends. [10] (

National affiliates

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

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

Below are some of the ACLU's bigger affiliates:

External links

Template:Wikiquotede:American Civil Liberties Union it:American Civil Liberties Union nl:American Civil Liberties Union


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