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The Most Important United States Supreme Court Victories Involving The ACLU, Either As Direct Counsel Or As A Friend-Of-The-Court.
1925 Gitlow v. New York Our first Supreme Court landmark. Though
upholding the defendant's conviction for distributing his call to
overthrow the government, the Court held, for the first time, that the
Fourteenth Amendment "incorporates" the free speech clause of the First
Amendment and is, therefore, applicable to the states.
1927 Whitney v. California Though the Court upheld a conviction for
membership in a group that advocated the overthrow of the state, Justice
Brandeis explained, in a separate opinion, that under the "clear and
present danger test" the strong presumption must be in favor of "more
speech, not enforced silence." That view, which ultimately prevailed,
laid the groundwork for modern First Amendment law.
1931 Stromberg v. California The ACLU argued successfully that the
conviction of a communist for displaying a red flag should be overturned
because it was based on a state law that was overly vague, in violation
of the First Amendment.
1932 Powell v. Alabama This first of the "Scottsboro" cases to reach the
high Court resulted in the decision that eight African Americans accused
of raping two white women lacked effective counsel at their trial -- a
denial of due process. For the first time, in this case, constitutional
standards were applied to state criminal proceedings.
1935 Patterson v. Alabama In this second "Scottsboro" decision, the
Court sent the defendant's case back to state court on the ground that
he had been denied a fair trial by the exclusion of African Americans
from the jury list.
1937 DeJonge v. Oregon A landmark First Amendment case, in which the
Court held that the defendant's conviction under a state criminal
syndicalism statute merely for attending a peaceful Communist Party
rally violated his free speech rights.
1938 Lovell v. Griffin The Court held, in this case involving Jehovah's
Witnesses, that a local ordinance in Georgia prohibiting the
distribution of "literature of any kind" without a City Manager's
permit, violated the First Amendment.
1939 Hague v. CIO An important First Amendment case in which the Court
recognized a broad freedom to assemble in public forums, such as
"streets and parks," by invalidating the repressive actions of Jersey
City's anti-union Mayor, "Boss" Hague.
1941 Edwards v. California In this major victory for poor people's right
to travel from one state to another, the Court struck down an "anti-
Okie" law that made it a crime to transport indigents into California.
1943 West Virginia v. Barnette A groundbreaking decision, made more
resonant by its issuance in wartime. The Court championed religious
liberty with its holding that a state could not force Jehovah's Witness
children to salute the American flag.
1944 Smith v. Allwright An early civil rights victory that invalidated,
under the Fifteenth Amendment, the intentional exclusion of African
Americans from Texas' "white primary" on the ground that primaries are
central to the electoral process even though the Democratic Party is a
1946 Hannegan v. Esquire A major blow against censorship. The Court
severely limited the Postmaster General's power to withhold mailing
privileges for allegedly "offensive" material.
1947 Everson v. Board of Education A trailblazer: The Court found school
boards' reimbursement of the public transportation costs incurred by
parents whose children attended parochial schools constitutional, but
Justice Black's statement -- "In the words of Jefferson, the
clause...was intended to erect a `wall of separation between church and
State'..." -- was the Court's first major utterance on the meaning of
1948 Shelley v. Kraemer An important civil rights decision that
invalidated restrictive covenants -- contractual agreements between
white homeowners in a residential area barring the sale of houses to
1949 Terminiello v. Chicago Protection for offensive speech expanded
with the Court's exoneration of an ex-priest convicted of disorderly
conduct for giving a racist, anti-semitic speech that "invited dispute."
Justice William O. Douglas, for the Court, noted that "the function of
free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute."
1952 Rochin v. California Reversing the conviction of a man whose
stomach had been forcibly pumped for drugs by a doctor at the behest of
police, the Court ruled that the Due Process Clause outlaws "conduct
that shocks the conscience."
1952 Burstyn v. Wilson Artistic freedom triumphed when the Court
overruled its 1915 holding that movies "are a business, pure and
simple," and decided that New York State's refusal to license "The
Miracle" violated the First Amendment. The state censor had labeled the
1954 Brown v. Board of Education In perhaps the most far-reaching
decision of this century, the Court declared racially segregated schools
unconstitutional and overruled the "separate but equal" doctrine
announced in its infamous 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.
1957 Watkins v. United States Under the First Amendment, the Court
imposed limits on the investigative powers of the House UnAmerican
Activities Committee, which had found a labor leader in contempt for
refusing to answer questions about his associates' membership in the
1958 Kent v. Dulles The Court ruled that the State Department had
exceeded its authority in denying artist Rockwell Kent a passport
because he refused to sign a "noncommunist affidavit." The right to
travel, said the Court, is protected by the Due Process Clause of the
1958 Speiser v. Randall Arguing before the Court on his own behalf, ACLU
lawyer Lawrence Speiser won his challenge to a California law requiring
that veterans sign a loyalty oath to qualify for a property tax
1958 Trop v. Dulles An American stripped of his citizenship for being a
deserter in World War II suffered cruel and unusual punishment, said the
Court, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
1961 Mapp v. Ohio A landmark, in which the Court ruled that the Fourth
Amendment's Exclusionary Rule, first applied to federal law enforcement
officers in 1914, applied to state and local police as well.
1961 Poe v. Ullman Though unsuccessful, this challenge to Connecticut's
ban on contraceptive sales set the stage for the Griswold decision of
1965. In a 33-page dissent, Justice John Harlan argued that the
challenged law was "an intolerable invasion of privacy in the conduct of
one of the most intimate concerns of an individual's private life."
1962 Engel v. Vitale In an 8-1 decision, the Court struck down the New
York State Regent's "nondenominational" school prayer, holding that "It
is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers."
1963 Abingdon School District v. Schempp Building on Engel in another 8-
1 decision, the Court struck down Pennsylvania's in-school Bible-reading
law as a violation of the First Amendment.
1963 Gideon v. Wainwright An indigent drifter from Florida made history
when, in a handwritten petition, he persuaded the Court that poor people
had the right to a state-appointed lawyer in criminal cases.
1964 Escobedo v. Illinois Invoking the Sixth Amendment right to counsel,
the Court threw out the confession of a man whose repeated requests to
see his lawyer, throughout many hours of police interrogation, were
1964 New York Times v. Sullivan A victory for freedom of the press.
Public officials could not recover damages for defamation, ruled the
Court, unless they could prove that a newspaper had impugned them with
"actual malice." A city commissioner in Montgomery, Alabama, had sued
over publication of a full-page ad written by civil rights activists.
1964 Jacobellis v. Ohio Justice Potter Stewart's famous statement, that
although he could not define "obscenity," he "knew it when he saw it,"
crowned the Court's overturning of a cinema owner's conviction for
showing "The Lovers," by Louis Malle.
1964 Reynolds v. Sims An historic civil rights decision that applied the
"one person, one vote" formula to state legislative districts, and that
was regarded by Chief Justice Earl Warren to be the most important
decision rendered during his tenure.
1965 U.S. v. Seeger In one of the first anti-Vietnam War decisions, the
Court extended conscientious objector status to those who do not
necessarily believe in a supreme being, but who oppose war based on
sincere beliefs that are equivalent to religious faith.
1965 Lamont v. Postmaster General A unanimous Court found
unconstitutional, under the First Amendment, a challenged Cold War law
that required the Postermaster General to detain and destroy all
unsealed mail from abroad deemed to be "communist political propaganda"
-- unless the addressee requested delivery in writing.
1965 Griswold v. Connecticut Among the 20th century's most influential
decisions. It invalidated a Connecticut law forbidding the use of
contraceptives on the ground that a right of "marital privacy," though
not specifically guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, is protected by
"several fundamental constitutional guarantees."
1966 Miranda v. Arizona This famous decision established the "Miranda
warnings," a requirement that the police, before interrogating suspects,
must inform them of their rights. The Court embraced the ACLU's amicus
argument that a suspect in custody has both a Sixth Amendment right to
counsel and a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
1966 Bond v. Floyd The Court ordered Georgia's legislature to seat the
duly elected state senator, Julian Bond, a civil rights activist denied
his seat for publicly supporting Vietnam War draft resisters.
Criticizing U.S. foreign policy, said the Court, does not violate a
legislator's oath to uphold the Constitution.
1967 Keyishian v. Board of Regents A Cold War-inspired law, requiring
New York public school teachers to sign a loyalty oath, fell as a
violation of the First Amendment. The decision, capping off a series of
unsuccessful challenges to both federal and state loyalty and security
programs, rejected the doctrine that public employment is a "privilege"
to which government can attach whatever conditions it pleased.
1967 In re Gault The most important landmark for juveniles, it
established specific due process requirements for state delinquency
proceedings and stated, for the first time, the broad principle that
young persons have constitutional rights.
1967 Loving v. Virginia A civil rights landmark that invalidated the
anti-miscegination laws of Virginia and 15 other southern states. The
Court ruled that criminal bans on interracial marriage violate the
Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause and "the freedom to
marry," which the Court called "one of the basic civil rights of
1968 Epperson v. Arkansas The Court ruled that Arkansas had violated the
First Amendment, which forbids official religion, with its ban on
teaching "that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of
1968 Levy v. Louisiana The Court invalidated a state law that denied an
illegitimate child the right to recover damages for a parent's death.
The ruling established the principle that the accidental circumstance of
a child's birth does not justify denials of rights.
1968 King v. Smith The court invalidated a "man in the house" rule that
denied welfare to children whose mother was living with a man,
unmarried. The decision benefited an estimated 500,000 poor children,
who had previously been excluded from aid.
1968 Washington v. Lee Alabama statutes requiring racial segregation in
the state's prisons and jails were declared unconstitutional under the
1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio After the ACLU's 50-year struggle against laws
punishing political advocacy, the Court now adopted our view of the
First Amendment -- that the government could only penalize direct
incitement to imminent lawless action -- and invalidated, in one fell
swoop, the Smith Act and all state sedition laws restricting radical
1969 Tinker v. Des Moines A landmark lift for symbolic speech and
students' rights. The Court invalidated the suspension of public school
students for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, writing
that students did not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of
speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
1970 Goldberg v. Kelly Setting in motion what has been called the
"procedural due process revolution," the Court ruled that welfare
recipients were entitled to notice and a hearing before the state could
terminate their benefits.
1971 Cohen v. California Reversed the conviction of a man who allegedly
disturbed the peace by wearing a jacket that bore the words, "Fuck the
draft," while walking through a courthouse corridor. The Court rejected
the notion that the state can prohibit speech just because it is
1971 U.S. v. New York Times The Pentagon Papers, a landmark among prior
restraint cases. The leaking of the Papers to the press for publication
by Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department official, did not, said
the Court, justify an injunction against publication on national
1971 Reed v. Reed A breakthrough women's rights decision that struck
down a state law giving automatic preference to men over women as
administrators of decedents' estates. For the first time, the Court
ruled that sex-based -- like race-based -- classifactions violated the
Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
1971 U.S. v. Vuitch The Court's first abortion rights case, involving a
doctor's appeal of his conviction for performing an illegal abortion.
The Court upheld the constitutionality of the statute used to convict,
but expanded the "life and health of the woman" concept to include
psychological well-being, and ruled that the prosecution must prove the
abortion was not necessary for a woman's physical or mental health.
1972 Eisenstadt v. Baird Extending Griswold, this decision overturned
the conviction of a reproductive rights activist who had given an
unmarried woman in Massachusetts a contraceptive device. The Court held
that allowing distribution of contraceptives to married, but not
unmarried, people violated the Equal Protection Clause.
1972 Furman v. Georgia In this seminal case, the Court found that the
"arbitrary and capricious" application of state death penalty statutes
violated the Eighth Amendment's stricture against cruel and unusual
punishment. Hundreds of executions were held up while states tried to
fashion new laws that would pass constitutional muster.
1973 Frontiero v. Richardson Another victory for women's rights. The
Court struck down a federal law that would not permit a woman in the
armed forces to claim her husband as a "dependent" unless he depended on
her for more than half of his support, while a serviceman could claim
"dependent" status for his wife regardless of actual dependency.
1973 Holtzman v. Schlesinger A dramatic lawsuit, brought by the ACLU for
a New York congresswoman, to halt the bombing of Cambodia as an
unconstitutional Presidential usurpation of Congress's authority to
declare war. After a federal order to stop the bombing was stayed on
appeal, the ACLU sent a lawyer across country to the remote vacation
hideaway of Justice William O. Douglas -- who vacated the stay and,
though later overruled, succeeded in halting the bombing for a few
1973 Roe v. Wade/ Doe v. Bolton One of the Court's most significant
decisions, Roe erased all existing criminal abortion laws and recognized
a woman's constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. In Doe, the
companion case, the Court ruled that whether an abortion is "necessary"
is the attending physician's call, to be made in light of all factors
relevant to a woman's well-being.
1974 U.S. v. Nixon This test of Presidential power involved Nixon's
effort to withhold crucial Watergate tapes from Special Prosecutor Leon
Jaworski. In the only amicus brief filed, the ACLU argued: "There is no
proposition more dangerous to the health of a constitutional democracy
than the notion that an elected head of state is above the law and
beyond the reach of judicial review." The Court agreed and ordered the
tapes handed over.
1975 Goss v. Lopez A victory for students' rights that invalidated a
state law authorizing a public school principal to suspend a student for
up to ten days without a hearing. The Court ruled that students are
entitled to notice and a hearing before a significant disciplinary
action can be taken against them.
1975 O'Connor v. Donaldson The Court's first ruling on the rights of
mental patients supported a non-violent man who had been confined
against his will in a state hospital for 15 years. Mental illness alone,
said the Court, could not justify "simple custodial confinement" on an
1976 Buckley v. Valeo Freedom of speech and association won a partial
victory in this challenge to the limits on campaign spending imposed by
amendments to the Federal Elections Campaign Act. The Court struck down
the Act's restrictions on spending "relative to a candidate," and its
required disclosure of $100-plus political contributions.
1978 Smith v. Collin The peculiar facts of this, one of the ACLU's most
controversial First Amendment lawsuits ever, attracted enormous
attention: American Nazis wanted to march through a Chicago suburb,
Skokie, where many Holocaust survivors lived. The ACLU's challenge to
the village's ban on the march was ultimately upheld.
1978 In re Primus An ACLU cooperating attorney -- a sharecropper's
daughter and the first black woman to finish the University of South
Carolina Law School -- was reprimanded for "improper solicitation" by
the state supreme court after she encouraged some poor women to
challenge the state's sterilization of welfare recipients. Exonerating
her, the high Court distinguished between lawyers who solicit "for
pecuniary gain"and those who solicit to "further political and
ideological goals through associational activity."
1980 Prune Yard Shopping Center v. Robins A victory for freedom of
expression. The Court rejected shopping mall owners' claim that their
property rights compelled reversal of the California Supreme Court's
requirement that a shopping center allow distribution of political
pamphlets on its premises.
1983 Bob Jones University v. United States The Court rejected two
fundamentalist Christian schools' claim, supported by the Reagan Justice
Department, that the First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty
forbade the denial of income tax exemptions to educational and religious
institutions that practice racial discrimination. Instead, the Court
held that the IRS is empowered to set rules enforcing a "settled public
policy" against racial discrimination in education.
1985 Wallace v. Jaffree This important church-state separation decision
found Alabama's "moment of silence" law, which required public school
children to take a moment "for meditation or voluntary prayer," in
violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
1989 Texas v. Johnson This First Amendment invalidation of the Texas
flag desecration statute provoked the newly inaugurated George Bush to
propose a federal ban on flag burning ormutilation. Congress swiftly
obliged, but the Court struck down the law a year later in United States
v. Eichman -- in which the ACLU also filed a brief. Both rulings were
big victories for symbolic political speech.
1990 Cruzan v. Director of the Missouri Department of Health The Court's
first "right-to-die" case, in which the ACLU represented the family of a
woman who had been in a persistent vegetative state for more than seven
years. Although the Court did not go as far as the ACLU urged, it did
recognize living wills as clear and convincing evidence of a patient's
1992 R.A.V. v. Wisconsin An important First Amendment victory. A
unanimous Court struck down a local law banning the display, on public
or private property, of any symbol "that arouses anger, alarm or
resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or
1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey A critical, though less than total,
victory for reproductive freedom. While upholding parts of
Pennsylvania's abortion restriction, the Court also reaffirmed the
"central holding" of Roe v. Wade: that abortions performed prior to
viability cannot be criminalized.
1992 Lee v. Weisman The Court ruled that any officially-sanctioned
prayer at public school graduation ceremonies violates the Establishment
1992 Hudson v. McMillian The Court upheld a Louisiana prisoner's claim
that three corrections officers had violated his Eighth Amendment right
to be spared cruel and unusual punishment by beating him while he was
shackled and handcuffed. The Court held that the unnecessary and wanton
infliction of pain is an appropriate standard in prisoners' Eighth
1993 J.E.B. v. T.B. In this women's rights victory, the Court held that
a prosecutor could not use peremptory challenges to disqualify potential
jurors based on their gender.
1993 Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah A religious freedom
victory for unusual, minority religions. The Court held that local
ordinances adopted by the City of Hialeah, banning the ritual slaughter
of animals as practiced by the Santeria religion, but permitting such
secular activities as hunting and fishing, violated the First
Amendment's Establishment Clause.
1993 Wisconsin v. Mitchell The Court agreed with the ACLU that
Wisconsin's "hate crime" statute, providing for additional criminal
penalties if a jury found that a defendant "intentionally selected" a
victim based on "race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation,
national origin or ancestry," did not violate the First Amendment
because the statute punished racist acts, not racist thoughts.
1994 Ladue v. Gilleo Unanimously, the Court struck down an Ohio town's
ordinance that had barred a homeowner from posting a sign in her bedroom
window that said, "Say No to War in the Gulf -- Call Congress Now!"
1995 Lebron v. Amtrak Extended the First Amendment to corporations
created by, and under the control of, the government in the case of an
artist who argued successfully that Amtrak had been wrong to reject his
billboard display because of its political message.
Copyright 1996, The American Civil Liberties Union
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