Established in 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, a non-profit legal organization, aims to defend the constitutional rights of American citizens by offering litigation services, lobbying, providing legal assistance whenever civil liberties are at risk. Primarily focused on defending free speech, the ACLU was formed at the time of the first Red Scare following the communist revolution by Russia and World War I. Initially aiming to defend anti-war speech, the ACLU has been known to take controversial stands such as their defense of a Nazi group in 1978, that planned a march in Chicago in a village with many Holocaust survivors.
The Beginnings of ACLU
The NCLB, or National Civil Liberties Bureau, was primarily organized to defend anti-war movements of conscientious objectors versus WWI, and many others accused of sedition and espionage.
Most of those who refused to participate in the war and military services often did so on religious grounds, and many were Quakers.
The Infamous “Palmer Raids”
Under the leadership of Atty. Roger Nash in 1920, the NCLB was transformed into the present-day ACLU. This was in response to illegal government raids during 1919 and 1920, against suspected radical leftists. This was after the 1918 Russian Revolution, where there was a widespread fear in the United States of being infiltrated by Leftists, and Bolsheviks; a stage known as the Red Scare.
During these “Palmer Raids,” under the initiative of Atty. Gen. Alexander Mitchell Palmer, unwarranted arrests were rampant. Many of those taken forcibly were detained without formal charges. All these illegal practices were documented by the ACLU, which worked hard for their immediate release.
The ACLU Court Cases That Made History
The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, known as “The Scopes Monkey Trial,” involved the jury’s conviction of John T. Scopes, a high school teacher, for violating an express ban on teaching the theory of evolution. ACLU defended Scopes, who was slapped with a $100 fine in 1925, considering the ban a violation against academic freedom, thus unconstitutional.
The ACLU did not directly participate in the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, but they filed legal documents supporting the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in its effort to challenge “separate but equal” schools for white and black children. The ACLU also backed up legendary boxer Muhammad Ali who was accused in 1967 of draft evasion. The decision convicting Ali was overturned on the grounds of his religious beliefs which prevented him from participating in the Vietnam War.
How the ACLU Brought Freedom Of Speech
In its unwavering mission as staunch defenders of the freedom of speech, the ACLU put itself in the middle of controversy by defending a Nazi group against residents of the village of Skokie in Chicago, Illinois. They raised the issue in the Supreme Court and called for the Nazi group’s constitutional right to be upheld, as guaranteed by the First Amendment; allowing them to pursue their march in Skokie, against the majority’s rejection, and display the Swastika symbol.
Also, the ACLU has defended protesters against the burning of American flags, stating that banning them to do so as a means of protest would by nature “incinerate the very principles for which the flag stands.”
Still Active Today
ACLU remains active today. In fact, it’s grown substantially with over 1.6 million members and 300 in-house lawyers. It is projected to increase in size considering the amount of cases it receives, approximately 6,000 per year. It takes an active stance on many issues including support for gay rights, internet users, and immigrants. It has expressed its opposition against the Patriot Act, which empowers government agencies to expand their scope of authority in monitoring citizens’ personal activities via the Internet, and mobile phones.
It also challenges Pres. Trump’s attempts to ban travels originating from Muslim-majority countries; drawing such support so that 2 days into the effectiveness of the executive order, it received over 350,000 donations online, which translates to around $24 million. This was far from their annual average of $4 million per year.