The ACLU, or American Civil Liberties Union, is a nonprofit legal organization whose goal is to protect the constitutional rights of Americans through litigation and lobbying. Founded in 1920, their stated mission is “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” The ACLU formed during the first Red Scare that followed World War I and Russia’s communist revolution. Over the years, the ACLU has taken a number of controversial stands for free speech. In 1978, for instance, they defended a Nazi group that wanted to march through a Chicago suburb with many Holocaust survivors.
Birth of the ACLU
The National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB) formed in 1917 to provide legal aid for conscientious objectors of World War I and those being prosecuted for espionage and sedition.
Conscientious objectors are individuals who refuse to perform military services—often on religious grounds. During World War I, Quakers made up a large portion of this group.
In 1920, under the leadership of Roger Nash, an American lawyer, the NCLB dissolved and reorganized to form the present-day American Civil Liberties Union. The change occurred in response to the “Palmer Raids” of 1919 and 1920.
After the Russian revolution in 1918, the United States feared infiltration by Bolsheviks and leftists. During a period known as the Red Scare, Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer instituted a series of federal raids on suspected radical leftists.
Thousands of people were arrested without warrants and detained for long periods without formal charges. The newly formed ACLU documented and publicized the government’s unlawful activities during the raids and secured the release of hundreds of anti-war activists.
Notable ACLU Court Cases
In one of the ACLU’s earliest court cases, The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, the ACLU defended a high school science teacher, John T. Scopes. The Scopes trial is often referred to as the “Scopes Monkey Trial.”
Scopes was charged in 1925 with violating a Tennessee ban on teaching evolution. The ACLU considered the state ban on teaching evolution unconstitutional, because it violated academic freedom. The jury convicted Scopes of violating state law and he was fined $100.
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The ACLU was a friend-of-the-court participant in Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark 1954 Supreme Court case that declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional. While they were not party to the case, the ACLU filed legal documents in support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in its challenge of “separate but equal” schools for black and white children.
The ACLU defended American boxer Muhammad Ali after he was accused of draft evasion in 1967. His conviction was overturned on the grounds that he was a “conscientious objector” whose religious beliefs prohibited him from fighting in the Vietnam War.
ACLU And Freedom Of Speech
Some of the ACLU’s most controversial stances have come in its defense of free speech. In 1977, a neo-Nazi group announced plans to march in Skokie, Illinois, a Chicago suburb with a large population of Holocaust survivors. The Village of Skokie refused to allow the march.
The ACLU appealed the refusal to the Supreme Court, successfully arguing that the group had a constitutional right guaranteed by the First Amendment to hold a march and display the swastika symbol. (The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and the right to peaceable assembly.)
The group has also taken a controversial stand defending the rights of protestors to burn the American flag. Their position states that any law or amendment prohibiting flag-burning as a means of protest “would incinerate the very principles for which the flag stands.”
The ACLU has been active on a number of recent issues, including affirmative action, gay rights, and protections to immigrants and internet users. The ACLU takes roughly 6,000 court cases annually and counts more than 1.6 million members, including 300 staff attorneys.
The ACLU is a vocal opponent of mass surveillance under the Patriot Act. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Act gave the government expanded authority to monitor the phone and internet activities of United States citizens.
In 2017, the organization challenged the constitutionality of President Donald Trump’s controversial attempts to ban travel from several Muslim-majority nations. In the two-day period following Trump’s executive order, the ACLU received more than 350,000 online donations totaling roughly $24 million. The non-profit typically raises about $4 million a year online.