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American Civil Liberties Union - Whose Civil Liberties, Anyway? The Aclu And Its Critics, Further Readings

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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

The ACLU's involvement in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial brought the organization national attention. Pictured is the Scopes defense team: (l-r) Clarence Darrow, Arthur Garfield Hays, Dudley Field Malone, George Rappelyea, John Neal, and Miss McClosky.
BETTMANN/CORBIS

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.

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.

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