The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) consists of two separate non-profit organizations: the ACLU Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization which focuses on litigation and communication efforts, and the American Civil Liberties Union, a 501(c)(4) organization which focuses on legislative lobbying. The ACLU's stated mission is "to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States." It works through litigation, legislation, and community education. Founded in 1920 by Crystal Eastman, Roger Baldwin and Walter Nelles, the ACLU was the successor organization to the earlier National Civil Liberties Bureau founded during World War I. The ACLU reported over 500,000 members at the end of 2005.
Lawsuits brought by the ACLU have been influential in the evolution of Constitutional law. The ACLU provides legal assistance in cases in which it considers civil liberties to be at risk. Even when the ACLU does not provide direct legal representation, it often submits amicus curiae briefs.
Outside of its legal work, the organization has also engaged in lobbying of elected officials and political activism. The ACLU has been critical of elected officials and policies of both Democrats and Republicans.
In the year of its birth the ACLU was formed to protect aliens threatened with deportation, along with U.S. nationals threatened with criminal charges by U.S. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer for their communist or socialist activities and agendas (see Palmer Raids). It also opposed attacks on the rights of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and other labor unions to meet and organize.
In 1940, the ACLU formally barred communists from leadership or staff positions, and would take the position that it did not want communists as members either. The board declared that it was "inappropriate for any person to serve on the governing committees of the Union or its staff, who is a member of any political organization which supports totalitarianism in any country, or who by his public declarations indicates his support of such a principle. The purge, which was led by Baldwin, himself a former supporter of communism, began with the ouster of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a member of both the Communist Party USA and the Industrial Workers of the World.
Conservatives and Republicans have frequently criticized the ACLU. One well-known example occurred during the 1988 presidential election, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush noted that his opponent Michael Dukakis had described himself as a "card-carrying member of the ACLU" and used that as evidence that Dukakis was "a strong, passionate liberal" and "out of the mainstream. The phrase subsequently was used by the organization in an advertising campaign.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks and the ensuing debate regarding the proper balance of civil liberties and security, including the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, the membership of the ACLU increased by 20%, bringing the group's total enrollment to 330,000. The growth continued, and by August 2008 ACLU membership was greater than 500,000.
Notably, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a current Justice of the Supreme Court, was the first director of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project. And Judith Krug, Director of the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom since 1967, was for three years concurrently on the Board of Directors of the Illinois Division of the ACLU. "She has been very successful in promulgating the ACLU's views within the country's libraries, and the ACLU has honored her with awards.
In 2005, in response to increasing internal strife, the ACLU national board attempted to impose what may critics labeled a "gag rule" on its employees. The proposal included the rule that "a board member may publicly disagree with an ACLU policy position, but may not criticize the ACLU Board or staff." The measures proved highly unpopular with free speech advocates within the ACLU, and were eventually shelved.
In October 2004, the ACLU rejected $1.5 million from both the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. The Foundations had adopted language from the USA PATRIOT Act into their donation agreements, including a clause stipulating that none of the money would go to "underwriting terrorism or other unacceptable activities." The ACLU views this clause, both in Federal law and in the donors' agreements, as a threat to civil liberties, saying it is overly broad and ambiguous.
Recovery of attorney's' fees by non-profit legal advocacy organizations is common practice. The pro-life Thomas More Law Center, for example, generally seeks, and is successful in, recovery of attorney's fees in the same manner as the ACLU. In 2005, the Thomas More law center derived 4.8% of its funding from court-awarded legal fees in this manner.
Due to the nature of its legal work, the ACLU is often involved in litigation against governmental bodies, which are generally protected from adverse monetary judgments: a town, state or federal agency may be required to change its laws or behave differently, but not to pay monetary damages except by an explicit statutory waiver.
In some cases, the law permits plaintiffs who successfully sue government agencies to collect money damages or other monetary relief. In particular, the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Award Act of 1976 leaves the government liable in some civil rights cases. Fee awards under this civil rights statute are considered "equitable relief" rather than damages, and government entities are not immune from equitable relief. Under laws such as this, the ACLU and its state chapters sometimes share in monetary judgments against government agencies.
The ACLU has received court awarded fees in numerous church-state cases. The Georgia chapter was awarded $150,000 in fees after suing a county demanding the removal of a Ten Commandments display from its courthouse; a second Ten Commandments case in the State, in a different county, led to a $74,462 judgment. Meanwhile, the State of Tennessee was required to pay $50,000, the State of Alabama $175,000, and the State of Kentucky $121,500, in similar Ten Commandments cases. The Public Expression of Religion Act of 2005, introduced by Representative John Hostettler, sought to alter the rules put in place by the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Award Act of 1976 to prevent monetary judgments in the particular case of violations of church-state separation. Also, groups such as the American Legion have taken stances opposing the ACLU's right to collect fees under such legislation.
The national headquarters of the ACLU is located in New York City. The organization does most of its work through 53 locally based affiliates and associated chapters, each of which have staff and a board of directors. The affiliates generally correspond to state (or equivalent) lines; Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico each have an affiliate, California has three affiliates, Pennsylvania has two, Missouri has two (one combined with Kansas), The Dakotas share one. These affiliates maintain a certain amount of governing autonomy from the national organization, and are able to work independently from each other, if they choose to do so. Many of the ACLU's cases originate or are handled from the local level and are also handled by local lawyers from the individual affiliates.
Affiliates (the state organizations) are the basic unit of the ACLU's organization and engage in litigation, lobbying, and public education. For example, in a twenty-month period beginning January 2004, the ACLU's New Jersey chapter was involved in fifty-one cases according to their annual report—thirty-five cases in state courts, and sixteen in federal court. They provided legal representation in thirty-three of those cases, and served as amicus in the remaining eighteen. They listed forty-four volunteer attorneys who assisted them in those cases.
Each legal foundation and political affiliate is registered as a 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) entity, respectively. All membership dues and tax-deductible donations are shared between the affiliates and the national office.
The ACLU has opposed some campaign finance reform laws such as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which it considers an inappropriate restriction upon freedom of expression. It does not have a policy of blanket opposition to all laws on campaign finance.
While the ACLU does oppose the use of crosses in public monuments, there have been false allegations that the ACLU has urged the removal of cross-shaped headstones from federal cemeteries and has opposed prayer by soldiers; such charges have been deemed to be urban legends.
Among the most notable controversial cases which involved the ACLU are the following:
Much ACLU work is done in the political arena where it faces frequent controversy as well.
In 1973, the ACLU was the first major national organization to call for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, giving as reasons the Nixon administration's violations of civil liberties. That same year, the ACLU was involved in the cases of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, in which the Supreme Court held that the constitutional right of privacy extended to women seeking abortions.
In 1977, the ACLU filed suit against the Village of Skokie, Illinois, seeking an injunction against the enforcement of three town ordinances outlawing Neo-Nazi parades and demonstrations. Skokie, Illinois at the time had a majority population of Jews, totaling 40,000 of 70,000 citizens. A federal district court struck down the ordinances in a decision eventually affirmed by the Supreme Court. The ACLU's action in this case led to a rift between the Jewish Defense League and the ACLU. According to David Hamlin, executive director of the Illinois ACLU, "...the Chicago office which chose to provide legal counsel to neo-Nazis who have been planning to march in Skokie, has lost about 25% of its membership and nearly one-third of its budget." 30,000 ACLU members resigned in protest. In his February 23, 1978 decision overturning the town ordinances, US District Court Judge Bernard M. Decker described the principle involved in the case as follows: "It is better to allow those who preach racial hatred to expend their venom in rhetoric rather than to be panicked into embarking on the dangerous course of permitting the government to decide what its citizens may say and hear ... The ability of American society to tolerate the advocacy of even hateful doctrines ... is perhaps the best protection we have against the establishment of any Nazi-type regime in this country.
In the 1980s, the ACLU filed suit to challenge the Arkansas 1981 creationism statute, which required the teaching in public schools of the biblical account of creation as a scientific alternative to evolution. The law was declared unconstitutional by a Federal District Court.
In 1982, the ACLU became involved in a case involving the distribution of child pornography (New York v. Ferber). In an amicus brief, the ACLU argued that the law in question "has criminalized the dissemination, sale or display of constitutionally protected non-obscene materials which portray juveniles in sexually related roles," while arguing that child pornography deemed obscene under the Miller test deserved no constitutional protection and could be banned.
During the 2004 trial regarding allegations of Rush Limbaugh's drug abuse, the ACLU argued that his privacy should not have been compromised by allowing law enforcement examination of his medical records.
In January 2006, the ACLU filed a lawsuit, ACLU v. NSA, in a federal district court in Michigan, challenging government spying in the NSA warrantless surveillance controversy. On August 17, 2006, that court ruled that the warrantless wiretapping program is unconstitutional and ordered it ended immediately. However, the order is stayed pending an appeal. The Bush administration did suspend the program while the appeal was being heard. In February 2008, the US Supreme Court "turned down an appeal from the [ACLU] to let it pursue a lawsuit against the program that began shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks."
The ACLU and other organizations also filed separate lawsuits around the country against telecommunications companies. The ACLU filed a lawsuit in Illinois (Terkel v. AT&T) which was dismissed because of the State Secrets Privilege and two others in California requesting injunctions against AT&T and Verizon. On August 10, 2006, the lawsuits against the telecommunications companies were transferred to a federal judge in San Francisco.
After the town of Hazleton, Pennsylvania passed an ordinance to punish landlords who rented to illegal immigrants and businesses who hired illegal immigrants, the ACLU and Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund sued Hazleton, saying the ordinance was unconstitutional. On July 26, 2007, a federal court agreed and struck down the Hazleton ordinance. Hazleton's mayor has promised to appeal the decision.
After the City of Indianapolis, Indiana began cracking down on when, where and how homeless persons can solicit donations, the ACLU sued Indianapolis, claiming the city's police unconstitutionally forced homeless persons to produce identification without probable cause.