American Civil Liberties Union
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is an American non-governmental
organization devoted to defending civil rights and liberties. 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 that 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 views.
The organization has involved itself in cases to oppose official prayers in
public schools, to prevent the display of religious symbols on public
property, to prevent the interference of government into religious affairs,
to support the legality of abortion and the rights of homosexuals, to defend
the freedom of speech of persons with unpopular, controversial, even
extremist, opinions (for example, neo-Nazis), to protect student speech, to
protect defendants and suspects from unconstitutional police practices, and
to maintain affirmative action.
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.
Critics of the ACLU
While the organization is generally supported by individuals who identify
themselves as liberal, it has on occasion taken on cases which are not in
tune with liberal ideals ? such as defending the free speech rights of the
Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazi groups, or NAMBLA, a group which supports
Thus, the group is not without critics; however, the most vocal critics are
generally 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 US Supreme
Court while 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; these critics claim these 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.
History and Notable Cases
The ACLU was formed in 1920 as the Civil Liberties Bureau. Founders include
Crystal Eastman and Roger Baldwin. During that year, it took the side of
aliens threatened with deportation by Attorney General Palmer for their
radical views. (See Palmer Raids. It also opposed attacks on the rights of
the International 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 persudaded 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 fine (but not the conviction) was later reversed
by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
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 US citizens descended from enemy
ancestry. This included the relocation of Japanese-American citizens,
internment of aliens, prejudicial curfews (U.S. v. Hirabayashi, 1942), and
In 1954, the ACLU played a role in the Brown v. Board of Education which led
to the ban on segregation in US 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. Walton, 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. 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% of
the membership from the organization (25% 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.