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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. Other briefing papers, produced by the ACLU Office of Public Education, explain the organization's position on a range of specific civil liberties issues.
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 nor Democratic. 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.
THE ACLU MANDATE
The mission of the ACLU is to assure that the Bill of Rights -- Amendments to the Constitution that guard against unwarranted government 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 and state.
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 laws: 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 a substantial influence over an individual's rights.
Expanding those protections: Although some segments of our population have traditionally been denied those rights, the ACLU works to extend protection to racial minorities, homosexuals, 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 freedom." -- 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. Some highlights:
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 the hundreds sentenced during the war for expression of antiwar opinions.
1925: The Scopes Case When Tennessee's new anti-evolution 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 anti- censorship decision that admitted James Joyce's 'Ulysses' into the U.S. after a long legal battle supported by the ACLU.
1939: Mayor Hague Mayer 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 West Coast.
"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
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 Desegregation 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 decision.
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.
"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
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 Ellsberg; 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 ruling 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 the 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 that 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.
1989: Siege of ACLU After being made an issue in an election campaign for the first time in its history, when presidential candidate George Bush attacked the ACLU in the fall of 1988, the organization found later that its membership had risen by over 50,000 in response to the attacks.
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 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 Department.
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 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 Force.
"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
The ACLU is governed by an 81-member Board of Directors which has one 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.
These goals are scheduled 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 275,000 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.
American Civil Liberties Union
132 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036
edited from ACLU Briefing Paper Number 1
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