The ACLU: Freely Giving Toward the Cause of Freedom

Greggory Moore | Best of Best
The ACLU: Freely Giving Toward the Cause of Freedom

image by: Robert Ashworth

The Land of the Free wouldn't be so free without the ACLU, which for a century has zealously fought for the rights of all Americans⎯for free.

The concept and practice of charity⎯giving to those in need⎯goes back to ancient times. When we think of charities today, we tend to focus on the basics, such as providing food, shelter, medical, and otherwise generally helping underprivileged populations. Oxfam, UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, and the Red Cross all fit that bill.

Legal aid doesn’t typically come to mind, particularly when the beneficiaries aren’t so much specific individuals but the entire American population, rich and poor alike. But by just about any reasonable definition, over the last century the American Civil Liberties Union has consistently performed charitable work for all Americans by taking on government, law enforcement, and any other persons or entities who impinge upon our Constitutional rights and freedoms.

The ACLU was founded in 1920 largely in reaction to a series of Supreme Court decisions upholding convictions of persons speaking out against American involvement in World War I, and the much of the organization’s early efforts were to resist the burgeoning “Red Scare” and the federal government’s disregard for First Amendment protections of free speech. “As is often the case when fear outweighs rational debate, civil liberties paid the price,” the ACLU says about the era. “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.”

Many of those arrestees were avowed communists, one of the most vilified groups in the United States during the 20th century. This willingness to defend the rights of the most unpopular and marginalized sectors of American society has been one of the ACLU’s defining characteristics. “It is easy to defend freedom of speech when the message is something many people find at least reasonable,” the ACLU stated in 2000. “But the defense of freedom of speech is most critical when the message is one most people find repulsive.”

It is exactly that principle that led to one of the ACLU’s most renowned cases: their defense of Nazis’ First Amendment right of free assembly. Popularly referred to as “the Skokie case,” in 1977 a small chapter of the National Socialist Party of America was denied a permit to hold a rally in the small, predominantly Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois, and the City of Skokie passed multiple ordinances to that end. The ACLU represented the Nazis in their appeals, eventually making their way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the courts had acted improperly in upholding the City of Skokie’s actions.

It was a case so unpopular at the time that the ACLU lost one-fourth of its total membership and one-third of its total budget. And like all its cases, the ACLU took this one on at no charge. To the ACLU, there is no price too dear for freedom.

"For almost a hundred years, our mission has been to defend the rights of everyone, even people we hate," ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero told NPR last year. "And ultimately, this is about making sure the government never has the authority or the ability to censor speech because it finds it loathsome or disgusting. There are ways for government to regulate speech. It's got to be neutral. There are time, place, manner restrictions that are perfectly appropriate and legitimate. And yet, it can never be because we don't like what folks say."

In defending the Bill of Rights⎯no matter whose rights are being violated⎯the ACLU has been part of some of the most famous trials in American history. In 1925, the ACLU defended high-school biology teacher John Scopes when the State of Tennessee charged him for violating a ban on the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution. During World War II, the ACLU sued the federal government on behalf of the over 100,000 Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps. In 1954, the ACLU was a party to Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that helped eradicate the inherently racist doctrine of “separate but equal” public facilities. In 1973, the ACLU was part of the Roe v. Wade decision, which secured a measure of reproductive freedom for women.

But the ACLU takes cases of all size. In fact, the organization keeps an ear to the ground in an effort to bring lawsuits wherever and whenever civil rights are under attack⎯something I learned first-hand when in 2011 I was surrounded by eight Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies after they believed I was taking pictures of the Long Beach Courthouse. Although I knew taking pictures of government buildings is not a crime (I wasn't actually photographing the courthouse, but never mind), what I didn't know was in the post-9/11 world the federal government and police departments across the country had created a policy "for investigating and reporting crimes and noncriminal incidents that represent indicators of potential foreign or domestic terrorism" (emphasis added), including activities as innocuous as asking a security guard for a building's hours of operation. The ACLU was in the process of putting together a lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department on behalf of two photographers who were detained for taking pictures on public streets⎯ the ACLU's argument being that such police activity violated both the First and Fourth Amendments⎯when they got wind of my experience and contacted me. The lawsuit ultimately led to the Sheriff's Department changing their policy.

As with all of their cases, the ACLU represented me and my fellow plaintiffs for free, taking payment only from the legal settlement they negotiated with the Sheriff's Department. In total, such payments do not come anywhere near toward paying the salaries for the ACLU's over 300 staff attorneys⎯not to mention support staff and extra resources necessary for the 2,000 or so the organization takes on each year⎯so like all nonprofits, the ACLU subsists primarily on donations. And if you're thinking about donating, the ACLU gets high marks from charity watchdog groups. Charity Navigator, for example, scores the ACLU 96.66 out of a possible 100. Forbes, meanwhile, notes that the ACLU has a 95% fundraising efficiency rating, and CharityWatch gives the ACLU a letter grade of A+.

Although there is never a shortage of work for the ACLU to do, Romero's January 2017 prediction that the Trump presidency would ramp up attacks on the most vulnerable sector of society has proven correct.

"[...] Donald Trump’s proposed policies in the context of immigrants’ rights, abortion rights, Muslim rights, fly in the face of long-established constitutional laws and principles," he told GQ ten days after Inauguration Day. "And so he gives us a lot to work with in terms of crystallizing these debates into lawsuits. Ultimately I think we’ll win many of them. Even the ones we don’t win in court, we’ll be able to frame a public debate on what’s at stake. [...] It’s clear that the president intends to follow through on his campaign promises. And so we intend to follow through on our promises to sue them every time he takes a wrong step and passes a law that’s unlawful or unconstitutional."

The Constitution and Bill of Rights together form the bedrock on which the United States is built, laying the foundation for the life of every American. When government digs away at that foundation, the ACLU freely helps us stand up for ourselves and the freedoms we hold dear, regardless of our political persuasion or the popularity of the ways in which we choose to exercise our liberty. In a republic founded on such principles, perhaps there is no more valuable act of charity.

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