For almost 100 years, the ACLU has worked to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States.
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.
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 1.75 million members, nearly 300 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.