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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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
American Civil Liberties Union
132 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036
edited from ACLU Briefing Paper Number 1
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