The best known civil liberties organization in the United States is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Founded in 1920, the ACLU works at the national, state, and local level through the courts, legislatures, and communities to ensure individual rights and liberties are not abridged. The ACLU has branches across the United States and maintains an active network of professionals and volunteers. The ACLU challenges legislation and any government action that it feels endanger civil rights.
The list of issues the ACLU handles is quite comprehensive: discrimination, religious freedom, privacy, free speech, prisoners’ rights, immigrants’ rights, rights of the poor, the death penalty—to name a few. The ACLU initiates lawsuits and often offers to defend those whose civil liberties have been challenged. In addition, the ACLU also issues “friend of the court” briefs for cases that go before the courts.
One of the ACLU’s earliest battles was the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. Tennessee had enacted legislation prohibiting the teaching of evolution and the ACLU decided to seek out a test case to argue for free speech. John T. Scopes volunteered to be the test case, and the ACLU agreed to provide legal counsel. The lead attorney was the noted defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, who argued vigorously in defense of Scopes’ right to teach evolution. Although Scopes was convicted and fined $100, the case brought the issue, and the ACLU, to national prominence.
A more recent case, one that was a victory for the ACLU, was ACLU v. Reno. The ACLU challenged the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which prohibited “indecent” speech over the Internet. The act was too broad and sweeping, claimed the ACLU, and threatened to endanger the free exchange of ideas online. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed and voted unanimously that the act was unconstitutional.
Many people think of the ACLU as a liberal organization aimed promoting a leftist agenda. In fact, the ACLU has defended people and institutions of all political beliefs. For example, the organization has opposed the creation of “hate speech” regulations on college and university campuses. The argument is that even hateful speech is protected under the Constitution (unlike hate-based actions), and a better way to deal with hate speech is to find its root causes instead of merely banning it.