American Civil Liberties Union

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American Civil Liberties Union

Since 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has fought energetically for the rights of individuals. This private, nonprofit organization is a multipurpose legal group with 300,000 members committed to the freedoms in the Bill of Rights. Although these liberties—free speech, equality, due process, privacy, etc.—are guaranteed to each citizen, they are never completely secure. Governments and majorities can easily weaken them or even take them away. The ACLU has had enormous success fighting such cases: many of the most important Supreme Court decisions have been won with its involvement, and continues to fight thousands of lawsuits in state and federal courts each year. The ACLU also lobbies lawmakers and speaks out on a wide variety of civil liberties and Civil Rights issues. Its passionate devotion to these concerns makes it highly controversial.

The origins of the ACLU date to World War I, a dark era for civil liberties. War fever gripped the United States, and official hostility toward dissent ran high. Attorney General a. mitchell palmer orchestrated much of this hostility from Washington, D.C., by ordering crack-downs on protesters, breaking strikes, prosecuting conscientious objectors, and deporting thousands of immigrants. One group in particular stood up to him: the American Union against Militarism (AUAM), led by social reformers and radicals. Among its founders was the pacifist roger baldwin, a former sociology teacher. In 1917, as the United States prepared to enter the war, Baldwin gave the group a broader mission by transforming it into the Civil Liberties Bureau, dedicated to the defense of those the government saw fit to crush and corral. Anti-Communist hysteria worsened the civil liberties picture between 1919 and 1920, and the upstart bureau had its hands full as Palmer, and his assistant, j. edgar hoover, staged massive police raids that netted thousands of alleged subversives at a time.

In 1920, the Civil Liberties Bureau became the ACLU. Joining Baldwin in launching the new organization were several distinguished social leaders, including the author Helen A. Keller, the attorney and future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, and the socialist clergyman Norman Thomas. The ACLU quickly joined the U.S. Congress and the American Bar Association in denouncing Attorney General Palmer for his raids—and the outcry helped end his tyrannical career. In the first annual ACLU report, Baldwin weighed the effectiveness of public activism, noting, "[T]he mere public assertion of the principle of freedom … helps win it recognition, and in the long run makes for tolerance and against resort to violence." In its weekly "Report on Civil Liberties Situation," the group watched over a torrent of abuses: a mob forcing a Farmer-Labor party delegation in Washington State to salute the U.S. flag; a Russian chemist being arrested in Illinois for distributing "inflammatory" handbills; and the Lynching and burning of six black men in Florida after a black man attempted to vote.

From the beginning, strict political neutrality was the ACLU's rule. The group did not oppose political candidates and declared itself neither liberal nor conservative. This position had an important consequence: the ACLU would defend the civil liberties of all people—including those who were weak, unpopular, and despised—without respect to their views. This principle made for strange bedfellows. As the Boston Globe recalled in its eulogy for Baldwin,

[A]t one point Mr. Baldwin was engaged simultaneously in defending the rights of the Ku Klux Klan to hold meetings in Boston, despite the orders of a Catholic mayor; of Catholic teachers to teach in the schools of Akron, despite the opposition of the Ku Klux Klan; and of Communists to exhibit their film, "The Fifth Year," in Providence, despite the opposition of both the Catholics and the Ku Klux Klan.

Consequently, while carving out a unique place for the ACLU in U.S. law, these defenses also won the organization enemies.

Within a few years, the ACLU was widely known. Its first victory before the Supreme Court came in the landmark 1925 case Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652, 45 S. Ct. 625, 69 L. Ed. 1138, in which the Court threw out the defendant's conviction under New York's "criminal anarchy" statute (N.Y. Penal Law §§ 160, 161, Laws 1909, ch. 88; Consol. Laws 1909, ch. 40), for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government in a printed flyer. Gitlow established that the Fourteenth Amendment, which applies to the states, includes Freedom of Speech in its liberty guarantee. By 1926, the ACLU was involved in the debate over church-state separation. It joined the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, arguing against a Tennessee law that forbade teaching the theory of evolution in public schools (Scopes v. State, 152 Tenn. 424, 278 S.W. 57 [1925]; 154 Tenn. 105, 289 S.W. 363[1927]). Besides bringing the group to national and worldwide attention, Scopes set it on a course from which it never veered: fighting government interference in religious matters. It staged this fight with equanimity, opposing official help and hindrance to religion, and it soon backed the Jehovah's Witnesses in a series of key Supreme Court cases. This involvement laid the groundwork for the Supreme Court's ruling, in a 1962 challenge originally brought by the ACLU, that school prayer is unconstitutional (engel v. vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 82 S. Ct. 1261, 8 L. Ed. 2d 601).

Between the 1930s and the mid-1990s, the ACLU won (as counsel) or helped to win (through amicus briefs) several Supreme Court cases that profoundly changed U.S. law and life. Among these were brown v. board of education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954) (declaring racially segregated schools unconstitutional);mapp v. ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 81 S. Ct. 1684, 6 L. Ed. 2d 1081 (1961) (severely limiting the power of police officers and prosecutors to use illegally obtained evidence);griswold v. connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 85 S. Ct. 1678, 14 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1965) (invalidating a state law that banned contraceptives and, for the first time, recognizing the concept of privacy in the Bill of Rights);miranda v. arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966) (requiring the police to advise suspects of their rights before interrogation); Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 87 S. Ct. 1817, 18 L. Ed. 2d 1010 (1967) (striking down the laws of Virginia and fifteen other states that made interracial marriage a criminal offense); Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 89 S. Ct. 1827, 23 L. Ed. 2d 430 (1969) (invalidating state Sedition laws aimed at radical groups); and roe v. wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973) (recognizing a woman's constitutional right to an Abortion).

Rarely did these victories endear the ACLU to its opponents. Liberals often—though not always—applauded the effort and the result. They praised, for instance, the ACLU fight against the Customs Bureau for banning James Joyce's novel Ulysses, and its battle to secure publication of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. Conservatives often found the ACLU meddlesome and the results of its meddling ruinous. Southerners denounced its war on Segregation, antiabortion groups blamed it for legal abortion, and Vice President george h. w. bush even labeled it "the criminal's lobby" for its insistence on combating police illegality. At times, the organization outraged nearly everyone, as when it went to court to win the right of Nazis to march in public in Skokie, Illinois. Yet throughout its many controversies, the ACLU seldom seemed to go against its charter. Especially in the early 1990s, it did not avoid cases even when taking them on meant clashing with such traditional allies as feminists and university professors over its support of the freedom to publish Pornography and opposition to campus speech codes.

Whose Civil Liberties, Anyway? The Aclu and Its Critics

Since 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has stood at the forefront of nearly every great legal battle over personal freedom in the United States. The C in ACLU might easily stand for Controversial. Although the ACLU's role as a major institution in U.S. law is indisputable, its effect on the law and on the lives of citizens is frequently in dispute. Political debate over the group yields very little middle ground and a great amount of passionate disagreement. Supporters agree with its self-styled epithet, "the guardian of liberty." To them, the ACLU is often all that stands between freedom and tyranny. Opponents think the organization is simply a liberal establishment bent on imposing its views on society. They fault its reading of the law, despise its methods, and rue its results. At the heart of this debate is a fascinating ironic question: how does an organization that fights for the very foundations of the nation's commitment to liberty inspire so much conflict?

Even from the start, the idea of a group devoted to defending liberty (the right of each person to be free from the despotism of governments or majorities) made some observers angry. In 1917, members of the Civil Liberties Bureau, which was soon renamed the ACLU, got this welcome from the New York Times editorial page: "Jails Are Waiting for Them." Although World War I was a period of governmental heavy-handedness, the Times proved to be both right and wrong. In the next three-quarters of a century, the ACLU became a vastly powerful force in shaping law, and it won many more enemies than friends. By the 1988 presidential election, candidate george h. w. bush could make political hay in campaign speeches by attacking the ACLU as "the criminal's lobby." Other critics said the ACLU was anti-God, anti-American, anti-life, and so on. In the end, no jails held ACLU members (at least not for long), but no small number of people would have liked to lock them away.

The case against the ACLU is actually many cases. Every time the organization goes into court, it naturally has to displease someone; litigation is hardly about making friends. Although the organization has one mandate, the abstract ideal of freedom, it must oppose the will of specific individuals if this mandate is to be carried out. Take, for example, one of the ACLU's civil liberties battles: religious freedom. For some, religious freedom means the First Amendment's guarantee that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"; in other words, that people will be free from government-imposed religious worship. For many others, religious freedom implies just the opposite First Amendment assurance, that Congress shall not prohibit the free exercise of religion. In a 1962 court battle, the ACLU won a point for the former, an end to prayer in public schools, a victory that polls indicate was unwanted and unsupported by most U.S. citizens (engel v. vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 82 S. Ct. 1261, 8 L. Ed. 2d 601). Equally stymied by ACLU activism are people who want to display Christian crèches on government property at Christmastime. They have their holiday hopes dashed every time the ACLU wins a court order blocking such a display on First Amendment grounds. Each victory for the organization in such cases may be another disaster in local public relations.

In response, scorn heaped on the ACLU seldom fails to question its motives. The ACLU's "yuletide work" was attacked by the conservative commentator John Leo in an essay in the Washington Times entitled "Crushing the Public Crèche:" "While others frolic, the grinches of the ACLU tirelessly trudge out each year on yet another crèche patrol, snatching Nativity scenes from public parks and rubbing out religious symbols." Leo's point is shared by many conservatives: the government, far from remaining neutral in religious matters, is actually engaging in hostility toward religion, at the behest of ACLU "zealots." In this view, the defense of an abstract principle has taken hold of the senses of its defenders; they have become inflexible absolutists. The conservative attorney and author Bruce Fein took this complaint much further, discovering something insidious: "A partial sketch of the ACLU's vision of America reveals a contempt for individual responsibility, economic justice and prosperity and moral decency." Fein meant that the ACLU defends Welfare.

Ascribing suspicious aims to the ACLU moves the debate into a more complicated area. The ACLU is not opposed simply because it has fought to block government-sanctioned religious displays, causing local upset and anger.

Similarly, it is not opposed merely because it defends the rights of some of society's most unpopular groups, Nazis, for example. The deeper issue is civil liberties themselves. Here we have a new question: why does an organization that fights for the very foundations of the nation's commitment to liberty even have to exist?

The ACLU's answer is rather simple. Civil liberties, it argues, exist only when everyone enjoys them. In other words, there is no such thing as freedom for some without freedom for all, including those individuals whom the majority may hate or whom the government seeks to silence. Loren Siegel, ACLU director of public education, wrote that the United States

was founded upon not one, but two great principles. The first, democracy, is the more familiar: The majority rules. The second principle, liberty, is not as well understood. Even in our democracy, the majority's rule is not unlimited. There are certain individual rights and liberties, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, that are protected from the "tyranny of the majority." Just because there are more whites than blacks in this country does not, for example, mean that whites can vote to take the vote away from blacks. And just because there are more heterosexuals than homosexuals should not mean that the majority can discriminate with impunity against the minority.

But civil liberties "are not self-enforcing," Siegel adds. Moreover, nadine strossen, ACLU president, points out that victories in civil liberties need to be continually re-won. It is not the habit of enemies to grant their opponents the same constitutional rights that they themselves enjoy; plainly, it is the habit of enemies to ignore, restrict, or even crush those rights. Not by accident, the government or a majority of voters can do this; the weak and the few cannot. Thus, the ACLU's commitment is precisely to those whose purchase on freedom is slim—not because the ACLU is necessarily in favor of their cause, but because it is in favor of upholding their rights.

That argument sounds nice on paper, opponents say, but it is neither practical nor sensible at all times in real life. Indeed, they ask, what about the majority—why must it suffer to please the few in its midst who cause trouble, such as criminals? This is the point that Bush wanted to make with his famous "criminal's lobby" blast: the civil liberties of criminals should not be upheld at the expense of the civil liberties of law-abiding citizens. Bush, like other critics, turned this charge into a broader indictment of the ACLU: in his 1988 campaign for the presidency, he accused Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis of being a "card-carrying member of the ACLU." The term card-carrying resonates in U.S. political history; it comes from the era of anti-Communist witch hunts and implies anti-Americanism. Ira Glasser, the ACLU's executive director at the time, indignantly replied to Bush in the Boston Globe: "The vice president feels it is politically expedient to beat up on us, and if the only way that he can carry it off is by engaging in McCarthyism and distorting our record, then he is willing to do it."

Despite the conservative claim that the ACLU is a liberal group, the political left also has taken shots at it. In the 1980s and 1990s, some feminists opposed the ACLU's absolute defense of free speech. These critics were particularly distressed by the organization's support of the speech rights of pornographers. Others on the left, notably academics, resent the ACLU's opposition to so-called hate-speech codes that Colleges and Universities have imposed on campuses to protect members of minorities from others' abusive expression. Such issues have caused dissent even among the ranks of the ACLU itself, leading some to argue that the organization should emphasize Civil Rights over civil liberties, that is, jettison its traditional mission in order to focus more specifically on the rights of women and racial minorities. In the ACLU's 1992–93 Annual Report, Strossen dismissed this argument. Liberty and equality, she wrote, are not mutually exclusive. "How can individual liberty be secure if some individuals are denied their rights because they belong to certain societal groups? How, on the other hand, can equality for all groups be secure if that equality does not include the exercise of individual liberty?"

Critics contend, however, that making individual rights paramount can produce results that clash with community values. They note that the ACLU has fought the implementation of the Children's Internet Protection Act, including a provision that requires public libraries receiving federal technology funds to install filters on their computers or risk losing aid. With the First Amendment seemingly protecting most forms of Internet Pornography, the act seeks to prevent access on public library computers, so as to prevent children from seeing disturbing images as they walk by. The act even permits adults to ask the librarians to turn off the filters. Nevertheless, the ACLU persuaded a federal court in 2002 that the law violated the First Amendment. Critics of the ACLU cite this as just one more example of blind devotion to an absolutist view of free expression.

In the aftermath of the September 11th Attacks of 2001, the ACLU has exposed itself to more criticism over its objections to new federal laws and orders. It objected to proposed provisions of the usa patriot act in October 2001, at a time when very few voices were raised about protecting the right to privacy and preventing the government from gaining more police powers. It has also challenged the indefinite detention of Aliens who are suspected of terrorist activities and ties.

The ACLU promises to remain on the forefront of the debate over the scope of the Bill of Rights and the desire of citizens to be protected by their government. The War on Terrorism that began in September 2001 was expected to generate many legal challenges by the ACLU as the federal government asserted new found powers to monitor, investigate, and detain suspected terrorists. It was expected that the ACLU would continue to find itself isolated at times as it battled for its vision of a free society.

Further readings

Schulhofer, Stephen J. 2002. The Enemy Within: Intelligence Gathering, Law Enforcement, and Civil Liberties in the Wake of September 11. New York: Twentieth Century Fund.

Strossen, Nadine. 2001. Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights. New York: New York Univ. Press.

The ACLU is often called the nation's foremost advocate of individual rights. With dozens of Supreme Court cases and thousands of state and federal rulings behind it, the organization is a firmly established force in U.S. law. Its reach goes beyond the courts. Watchful of lawmakers, it frequently issues public statements on pending national, state, and local legislation, campaigning for and against laws. It also pursues special projects on Women's Rights, reproductive freedom, Children's Rights, Capital Punishment, Prisoners' Rights, national security, and civil liberties. In these areas, its goal is both to defend existing liberties and to expand them into quarters where they are not generally enjoyed.

The election of george w. bush as president in 2000 and the gain of Republican seats in both the House and Senate in 2002 gave increased urgency to the ACLU's advocacy for civil liberties. In addition to supporting the right to partial-birth abortion, the ACLU has fought for Gay and Lesbian Rights, the rights of library patrons to view unrestricted Internet sites, and Affirmative Action programs for Colleges and Universities throughout the country. The ACLU has opposed numerous initiatives of the Bush administration, in particular, federal funding for faith-based drug treatment programs and the attempts to give sweeping new powers to domestic law enforcement and intelligence agencies after the September 11th attacks in 2001.

The ACLU's national headquarters is in New York City. The group maintains a legislative office in Washington, D.C., and a regional office in Atlanta, along with chapters in each state. These state chapters follow the decisions of the national executive board yet are also free to pursue cases on their own.

Further readings

ACLU. ACLU's Seventy-five Most Important Supreme Court Cases. Briefing paper.

——. The ACLU Today. Briefing paper.

——. Church and State. Briefing paper.

——. Guardian of Liberty. Briefing paper.

American Civil Liberties Union. Available online at <> (accessed May 30, 2003).

Hershkoff, Helen. 1997. The Rights of the Poor: The Authoritative ACLU Guide to Poor People's Rights. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Univ. Press.

Walker, Samuel. 1999. In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.


Baldwin, Roger Nash; Bill of Rights; Civil Rights; Frankfurter, Felix; Palmer, Alexander Mitchell; Strossen, Nadine M.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

American Civil Liberties Union

n. a membership organization founded in 1920 to defend and protect "the rights of man set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution." The ACLU researches the legalities of public policies and actions and defends clients in court when civil liberties are in question, without charge and often as Amicus Curiae (friend of the court). It has committees on academic freedom, state issues, media rights, free speech and association, due process, equal rights, labor/management relations and privacy. It also finances projects on voting rights, reproductive freedom, women's rights, and lesbian and gay rights. While some people consider it to be extremely liberal, the ACLU has defended ex-Nazi David Duke's right to be on the ballot and the Ku Klux Klan's right to obtain parade permits. Address: 132 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036; Tel.: (212) 944-9800.

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.
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