The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—controversial but essential. Their perspective is the U.S. Constitution, focusing on the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights exists to avoid a tyranny of the majority and the overreaching by government officials. As such, the ACLU sues to stop actions that may be very popular among some segments of the populace. At the same time, they represent people and organizations that others find offensive. The problem is that many, if not most people who object to what the ACLU does, don’t know what the Bill of Rights really includes. When they do, it’s provisions that those people specifically support or specifically oppose. It’s why I am a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.”
Here’s their explanation of why they do what they do, from their own website:
“We do not defend them because we agree with them; rather, we defend their right to free expression and free assembly. Historically, the people whose opinions are the most controversial or extreme are the people whose rights are most often threatened. Once the government has the power to violate one person’s rights, it can use that power against everyone. We work to stop the erosion of civil liberties before it’s too late.
The “About” page on the ACLU website has historical highlights that illustrate the scope and breadth of the cases in which they have been involved, working to protect the rights of Americans. Here’s what they list:
1920 – Palmer Raids
In its first year, the ACLU championed the targets of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer including politically radical immigrants. We also supported the right of trade unionists to hold meetings and organize, and we secured the release of hundreds of activists imprisoned for their antiwar activities.
1925 – The Scopes Case
When biology teacher John T. Scopes was charged with violating a Tennessee ban on the teaching of evolution, the ACLU was there and secured celebrated attorney Clarence Darrow for his defense.
1942 – Fighting the Internment of Japanese Americans
The ACLU stood almost alone in denouncing the federal government’s internment of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps.
1954 – Brown v. Board of Education
The ACLU, having joined the NAACP in the legal battle for equal education, celebrated a major victory when the Supreme Court declared that racially segregated schools were in violation of the 14th Amendment.
1969 – Protecting Free Speech
In Tinker v. Des Moines, the ACLU won a major Supreme Court victory on behalf of public school students suspended for wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War, a major First Amendment victory.
1973 – Reproductive Rights
After decades of struggle, the Supreme Court held — in Roe v. Wade andDoe v. Bolton — that the constitutional right to privacy encompasses a woman’s right to decide whether she will terminate or continue a pregnancy. But the fight still continues, as the ACLU fends off new attacks to erode women’s right to reproductive choice.
1978 – Taking a Stand for Free Speech in Skokie
The ACLU took a controversial stand for free speech by defending a Nazi group that wanted to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie — where many Holocaust survivors lived. The notoriety of the case cost the ACLU dearly as members left in droves, but to many it was our finest hour, and it has come to represent our unwavering commitment to principle.
1981 – Creationism in Arkansas
Fifty-six years after the Scopes trial, the ACLU challenged an Arkansas statute requiring that the biblical story of creation be taught as a “scientific alternative” to the theory of evolution. A federal court found the statute, which fundamentalists saw as a model for other states, unconstitutional. That fight continues today as we take on the “intelligent design” movement with cases like our 2005 victory in Dover, Pennsylvania.
1997 – Internet Free Speech
In ACLU v. Reno, the Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which censored the Internet by broadly banning “indecent” speech. Since then, Congress has passed numerous versions of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), a federal law that would criminalize constitutionally protected speech on the Internet. Each time the law has been challenged by the ACLU and declared unconstitutional.
2001 to Present – Keeping America Safe and Free
Since 9/11 terrorist attacks, the ACLU has been working vigorously to oppose policies that sacrifice our fundamental freedoms in the name of national security. From working to fix the Patriot Act to challenging NSA warrantless spying, our advocates are working to restore fundamental freedoms lost as a result of the Bush administration policies that expanded the government’s power to invade privacy, imprison people without due process, and punish dissent.
2003 – Equal Treatment for Lesbians and Gay Men
In Lawrence v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted the ACLU’s argument that the court had been wrong when it ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that the right to privacy did not cover lesbian and gay relationships. It struck down a Texas law that made same-sex intimacy a crime, expanding the privacy rights of all Americans and promoting the right of lesbians and gay men to equality.
2003 to 2009 – Exposing Torture
After a five-year legal battle, the ACLU’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit compelled the release of critical documents detailing the extent of the Bush torture program, including long-secret legal memos justifying waterboarding and other abuses and an Inspector General’s report highlighting CIA abuses. The ACLU is leading the demand for full accountability for those who authorized or condoned torture.
2005 – Keeping Religion Out of the Science Classroom
In Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, the ACLU represented a group of parents who challenged a public school district requirement for teachers to present so-called “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution in high school biology classes. In a decision that garnered nationwide attention, a district judge ruled that “intelligent design” is not science and teaching it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
2009 – Protecting the Right to Privacy
In Safford Unified School District v. Redding, the Supreme Court ruled that school officials violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old Arizona girl when they strip searched her based on a classmate’s uncorroborated accusation.
Fighting in Courtrooms Across America to Defend Your Rights
- Over the past 90 years, the ACLU has participated in more Supreme Court cases than any other private organization.
- Whether we’re standing on principle before the highest court in the land or in state and federal courthouses across America, the ACLU wins far more often than we lose.
- For nine decades the ACLU has been at the center of one critical, history-making court case after another.
- Our communications and public education staff employ a wide range of strategies to educate the general public on the critical civil liberties facing our nation.