History of the American Civil Liberties Union
In the years following World War I, America was gripped by the fear that the Communist Revolution that had taken place in Russia would spread to the United States. As is often the case when fear outweighs rational debate, civil liberties paid the price. In November 1919 and January 1920, in what notoriously became known as the “Palmer Raids,” Attorney General Mitchell Palmer began rounding up and deporting so-called radicals. Thousands of people were arrested without warrants and without regard to constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure. Those arrested were brutally treated and held in horrible conditions.
In the face of these egregious civil liberties abuses, a small group of people decided to take a stand, and thus was born the American Civil Liberties Union.
LEARN MORE: The ACLU and the Bill of Rights
The ACLU has evolved in the years since from this small group of idealists into the nation’s premier defender of the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. With more than 1.7 million members, 500 staff attorneys, thousands of volunteer attorneys, and offices throughout the nation, the ACLU of today continues to fight government abuse and to vigorously defend individual freedoms including speech and religion, a woman’s right to choose, the right to due process, citizens’ rights to privacy and much more. The ACLU stands up for these rights even when the cause is unpopular, and sometimes when nobody else will. While not always in agreement with us on every issue, Americans have come to count on the ACLU for its unyielding dedication to principle. The ACLU has become so ingrained in American society that it is hard to imagine an America without it.
One of the ACLU’s earliest battles was the Scopes Trial of 1925. When the state of Tennessee passed a law banning the teaching of evolution, the ACLU recruited biology teacher John T. Scopes to challenge the law by teaching the banned subject in his class. When Scopes was eventually prosecuted, the ACLU partnered with celebrated attorney Clarence Darrow to defend him. Although Scopes was found guilty (the verdict was later overturned because of a sentencing error), the trial made national headlines and helped persuade the public on the importance of academic freedom.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered all people of Japanese descent, most of whom were American citizens, be sent to “war relocation camps.” Eventually more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were sent to these internment camps. The ACLU, led by its California affiliates, stood alone in speaking out about this atrocity.
In 1954, the ACLU joined forces with the NAACP to challenge racial segregation in public schools. The resulting Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ended the era of “separate but equal” was a major victory for racial justice.
The ACLU was also involved in the 1973 the Supreme Court victories in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, which held that the right to privacy encompasses a woman’s right to decide whether she will terminate or continue a pregnancy. In 2003, the ACLU helped persuade the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas to expand upon the privacy rights established in Roe when it struck down a Texas law making sexual intimacy between same-sex couples a crime.
One of the most noted moments in the ACLU’s history occurred in 1978 when the ACLU defended a Nazi group that wanted to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois, where many Holocaust survivors lived. The ACLU persuaded a federal court to strike down three ordinances that placed significant restrictions on the Nazis’ First Amendment right to march and express their views. The decision to take the case was a demonstration of the ACLU’s commitment to the principle that constitutional rights must apply to even the most unpopular groups if they’re going to be preserved for everyone. Many now consider this one of the ACLU’s finest hours.
That commitment to principle in difficult situations continues today. Since the tragic terrorist attacks of 9/11, the ACLU has been working vigorously to oppose policies that sacrifice our fundamental freedoms in the name of national security. From opposing the Patriot Act to challenging warrantless spying to challenging the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects without charge or trial, the ACLU is committed to restoring fundamental freedoms lost as a result of policies that expand the government’s power to invade privacy, imprison people without due process and punish dissent.
The ACLU also remains a champion of segments of the population who have traditionally been denied their rights, with much of our work today focused on equality for people of color, women, gay and transgender people, prisoners, immigrants, and people with disabilities.
Back in 1920, the individual freedoms enumerated in the Constitution had never been fully tested in the courts, making them largely meaningless for ordinary people. Since then, principles of individual freedom, protection against arbitrary government action, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and press, due process of law, equal protection, and privacy have become codified in our laws and their protections widely enforced. The advancement of civil rights and social justice over the past century represents one of the most significant developments in American history, and the ACLU has been integral to this process.
But the work of defending freedom never ends, and in our vibrant and passionate society, difficult struggles over individual rights and liberties aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon. The ACLU is committed to fight for freedom and the protection of constitutional rights for generations to come.
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 and Doe 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.
LEARN MORE: ACLU 100 HISTORY SERIES
To commemorate our centennial year and document the history of the ACLU, we commissioned a series of essays exploring critical moments throughout the organization’s history. We take a look at those moments of extraordinary success, and those moments when we fell short, or failed. These essays come from those who know these moments best, either through their direct participation as former ACLU leaders, their personal connection to the issues, or their historical expertise in civil liberties (and in some cases, all three). The series traces the story of the ACLU from its founding, by the people who helped shape those events. In doing so, it also tells the story of America.
Fighting in Courtrooms Across America to Defend Your Rights
- For over 100 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.
Why we do what we do
The ACLU is frequently asked to explain its defense of certain people or groups—particularly controversial and unpopular entities such as the American Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Nation of Islam. 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.
Since we can’t take on every worthy case, we usually select lawsuits that will have the greatest impact, cases that have the potential for breaking new ground and establishing new precedents that will strengthen American freedoms.
And how we do it
We have grown from that roomful of civil libertarians to more than 1.7 million members. The ACLU today is the nation’s largest public interest law firm, with a 50-state network of staffed, autonomous affiliate offices. We appear before the United States Supreme Court more than any other organization except the U.S. Department of Justice. About 100 ACLU staff attorneys collaborate with about 2,000 volunteer attorneys in handling close to 2,000 cases annually.
The ACLU is non-profit and non-partisan. We do not receive any government funding. Member dues and contributions and grants from private foundations and individuals pay for the work we do. The ACLU, with headquarters in New York City, litigates across the nation and all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Our Washington, D.C., legislative office lobbies the U.S. Congress. We use strategic communications to educate the public about issues. And the ACLU has expanded its reach by applying international human rights standards in our complex Post 9/11 world. A number of national projects address specific civil liberties issues: AIDS, capital punishment, lesbian and gay rights, immigrants’ rights, prisoners’ rights, reproductive freedom, voting rights, women’s rights and workplace rights.
If you believe your civil liberties have been violated, or if you wish to join the ACLU, contact the ACLU.