Saturday, 13 March 2010

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

The American Civil Liberties Union is one of the most prominent civil and liberal groups in the USA. Its two branches collectively have funding of over $130,000,000 p.a. (figure for 2008, source: ACLU website), the majority of which (almost 90%, source: ACLU website – figure for 2008) is received from public donations and membership fees. It is a non-profit making organisation whose stated objective 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’ and its mission is to: ‘continue to tackle the thorniest issues confronting our nation— racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, and censorship. The ACLU's mission remains realizing the promise of the Bill of Rights for all and expanding the reach of its guarantees to new areas’ (source: ACLU website). The organisation operates through litigation, legislation and community education.

Founded in 1920 by Crystal Eastman, Roger Baldwin, Albert DeSilver and Walter Nelles, the ACLU was the successor to the earlier National Civil Liberties Bureau - itself an offshoot of the American Union Against Militarism founded during the First World War (1914-1918) to oppose US involvement in the war and defend conscientious objectors. It currently has over 500,000 members (source: ACLU website).

Lawsuits brought by the ACLU have been influential in the evolution of Constitutional law (for list see ACLU website ‘Supreme Court’) as the ACLU provides legal assistance, and other support, in cases in which it considers civil liberties to be at risk. It is also engaged in lobbying elected officials and political activism. Although the ACLU has been critical of politicians and policies of both parties its ultra-liberal mandate aligns it far more with the Democrats than the Republicans. Its position on key issues is antithetical to social conservatism in every respect but it is also committed to protecting ‘individual freedoms’ (those words again) against overbearing government and it works toward supporting complete egalitarianism for every person. It is also involved in monitoring the US government’s compliance with international law on human rights and aims to protect non-citizens in that context.

The ACLU is active in promoting their position on (amongst others):
- Abolish the death penalty
- Liberalising laws on drug crime
- Pro-choice on abortion
- Preserving free speech
- Fighting discrimination against AIDs sufferers
- Protecting prisoner’s rights
- Ending racism
- Promoting religious freedom and maintaining separation between religion and state
- Anti technological surveillance
- Ending gender discrimination against women or gay/lesbian community
- Protect the politically disenfranchised (e.g. non citizens, illegal immigrants).

The ACLU is therefore the nemesis of the neo-conservatives – as Roy Moore (of So Help Me God fame) discovered. His vitriolic views on the organisation are personal as well as political as the ACLU famously brought the law case on the ‘Ten Commandments’ plaque which resulted in Moore being removed from office.

However, the organisation’s pro-individual/anti-government stance does not include a current remit to protect workers’ rights. This notable omission has evolved from the anti-Communist period which began in the 1940s and gained momentum throughout the Cold War (1945-1991). At the height of the US ‘collectivist’ period in the twentieth century (Progressive era to US entry into the Second World War in 1941), being a member of a socialist/leftist organisation was not demonised within American society. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ response to the Great Depression of the 1930s saw an unprecedented level of collectivism by the US government and labour movements involved in the implementation of the New Deal programmes.

In 1940, the ACLU formally banned communists from leadership or staff positions in the organisation and also took the position that it did not want communists as members. 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 Roger Baldwin, himself a former supporter of communism, began with the ousting of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a member of both the Communist Party USA and the Industrial Workers of the World (source: ‘American Civil Liberties Union Records, The Roger Baldwin Years, 1917-1950: Finding Aid’,

Ironically, the ACLU was originally formed by leftist activists specifically to protect aliens threatened with deportation, U.S. nationals threatened with criminal charges for their communist or socialist activities and agendas, and the rights of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and other labour unions to meet and organise. That this most liberal of American organisations continues to omit workers’ rights from its agenda is suggestive of the pervasiveness of the ‘classlessness’ of American ideology myth, and also the persistence of the exceptionalism exploited to promote anti-left sentiment as a counter to the USSR during the Cold War. A sentiment in which Cold War propaganda aligning socialism with Communism continues to impact mainstream response to federal intervention/ programmes of all kinds.


  1. Reading that the ACLU is pro individual/anti government may cause someone who knows little about their stance to presume that the organisation is based in far right principles and upholds typical Republican sentiments.

    As they make clear though, their key issues are centred around social and moral hot topics such as their advocation of Pro Choice, LGBT Rights and ending Racism and Gender Discrimination. After searching in Google for more information on the ACLU I came across a current News piece on the ACLU's involvement in a LGBT case. Here is a video report from the Associated Press on YouTube that describes the case:

    The ACLU website's report of the story ( ) says that the school's refusal to let Mcmillan attend her prom with a same sex partner violates her First Amendment Right to Freedom of Expression or Free Speech:

    'Congress shall make no law [...] abridging the freedom of speech'

    This accusation by the ACLU sheds light upon peoples interpretation of the Constitution and the meaning of Free Speech.

    The AP report mentions McMillan's efforts online and how Facebook has facilitated action and support for her to eventually be allowed to prom. The ACLU also uses a social networking website, Twitter ( ) which enables it to branch out to its followers 24/7 and report on National cases that infringe upon idividual rights.

    The ACLU's aim to 'Protect the politically disenfranchised (e.g. non citizens, illegal immigrants)', can be related to my post on the Border Action Network. The ACLU is a considerably larger organistion that BAN yet supports a very similar Immigrant agenda. The great funding and backing of the ACLU could indeed prove to be helpful to BAN's initiatives and case studies.

    It is interesting that the ACLU is effected by the communist stigma attached to Workers Rights and therefore chooses not to employ them. Today, employment in America is becomely increasingly effected by the failure of companies in the recession and the frequency of citizens becoming jobless. Confidence must be restored within Americans for them to return back to work and sustain the national economy. In this respect it could be in the ACLU's best interest to develop workers rights of the twenty first century.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.