ACLU: Purpose, History, and Current Controversies

The American Civil Liberties Union Is Known for Advocacy and Controversy

Roger Baldwin, founder of the ACLU, at the Supreme Court
Roger Baldwin, founder of the ACLU, in front of the Supreme Court. Bettmann / Getty Images

The American Civil Liberties Union is a non-partisan public interest organization which advocates for the protection of constitutional rights. Throughout its history, the ACLU has represented a vast array of clients, from the mainstream to the notorious, and the organization has often been involved in prominent and newsworthy controversies.

The organization was founded in a period following the Red Scare and the Palmer Raids after World War I. During its decades of existence, it has been involved in cases ranging from the Scopes Trial, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the censorship of literature.

Key Takeaways: The ACLU

  • Organization founded in 1920 has defended civil liberties and free speech rights, even for those deemed indefensible.
  • Over its history, the ACLU has represented anarchists, rebels, dissidents, artists, writers, the wrongly accused, and even belligerently vocal Nazis.
  • The group's governing philosophy is to defend civil liberties, regardless of whether the client is a sympathetic character.
  • In the modern era, ACLU advocating for the free speech of white nationalists has sparked a controversy about the group's direction.

At times, the ACLU has advocated for disreputable clients, including the German America Bund in the 1930s, American Nazis in the 1970s, and white nationalist groups in recent years.

Controversies over the decades have not weakened the ACLU. Yet the organization has faced new criticisms of late, especially in the aftermath of the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

History of the ACLU

The ACLU was founded in 1920 by Roger Nash Baldwin, an upper-class Bostonian who had become very active in civil liberties issues during World War I. Baldwin, who had been born in 1884, was educated at Harvard and was an admirer of Henry David Thoreau. He became a social worker in St. Louis, and while working as a probation officer co-authored a book on juvenile courts.

Baldwin, while still living in St. Louis, became acquainted with the noted anarchist Emma Goldman, and began to travel in radical circles. In 1912, as his first public foray in defense of civil liberties, he spoke out in favor of Margaret Sanger when one of her lectures was shut down by the police.

After the United States entered World War I, Baldwin, a pacifist, organized the American Union Against Militarism (known as the AUAM). The group, which transformed into the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB), defended those who refused to fight in the war. Baldwin declared himself a conscientious objector, was prosecuted for avoiding the military draft, and sentenced to a year in prison.

Following his release from prison, Baldwin worked at menial jobs and joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). After a year of living a transient existence, he moved to New York City and sought to revive the NCLB's mission of advocating for civil liberties. In 1920, with the help of two conservative attorneys, Albert DeSilver and Walter Nelles, Baldwin launched a new organization, the American Civil Liberties Union.

Baldwin's thinking at the time had been heavily influenced not only by his own experience as a wartime dissident, but by the repressive atmosphere in America immediately following World War I. The Palmer Raids, in which the federal government arrested suspected subversives and deported those accused of being radicals, flagrantly violated civil liberties.

In the earliest years of the ACLU, Baldwin and the organization's supporters tended to support individuals and causes on the political left. That was mainly because those on the left tended to be those whose civil liberties were under assault by the government. But Baldwin began to accept that even those on the political right could have their rights curtailed. Under Baldwin's leadership, the ACLU mission became determinedly non-partisan.

Baldwin led the ACLU until he retired in 1950. He generally characterized himself as a reformer. He died in 1981 at the age of 97, and his obituary in the New York Times said he had "battled ceaselessly for the concept that the guarantees of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights apply equally to all."

Significant Cases

In the 1920s the ACLU entered the fight for civil liberties and soon became known for some significant cases.

The Scopes Trial

photo of attorney Clarence Darrow
Clarence Darrow.  Getty Images

In the 1920s, a Tennessee law prohibiting evolution being taught in the public schools was challenged by a teacher, John T. Scopes. He was prosecuted, and the ACLU became involved and partnered with a famous defense attorney, Clarence Darrow. The trial of Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee, was a media sensation in July 1925. Americans followed along on the radio, and prominent journalists, including H.L. Mencken, traveled to Dayton to report on the proceedings.

Scopes was convicted and fined $100. The ACLU intended to mount an appeal which would eventually reach the Supreme Court, but the chance to argue a landmark case was lost when the guilty verdict was overturned by a local appeals court. Four decades later, the ACLU won a legal victory involving the teaching of evolution with the Supreme Court case Epperson v. Arkansas. In a 1968 ruling, the Supreme Court held that forbidding the teaching of evolution violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Japanese Internment

President Bill Clinton with Fred Korematsu
President Bill Clinton with Fred Korematsu, who had been interned during World War II, and was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1998. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States government adopted a policy of relocating approximately 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent and placing them in internment camps. The ACLU became involved as the lack of due process was viewed as a violation of civil liberties.

The ACLU took two internment cases to the U.S. Supreme Court, Hirabayashi v. United States in 1943 and Korematsu v. United States in 1944. The plaintiffs and the ACLU lost both cases. However, over the years those decisions have often been questioned, and the federal government has taken steps to address the injustice of the wartime internment. In late 1990, the federal government sent redress checks for $20,000 to each surviving Japanese American who had been interned.

Brown v. Board of Education

The 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the landmark Supreme Court decision barring school segregation, was led by the NAACP, but the ACLU filed an amicus brief, offering support. In the decades following the Brown decision, the ACLU has been involved in many other education cases, often advocating for affirmative action in cases in which it is challenged.

Free Speech in Skokie

In 1978, a group of American Nazis sought a permit to hold a parade in Skokie, Illinois, a community which was home to many survivors of The Holocaust. The intent of the Nazis was obviously to insult and inflame the town, and the town government refused to issue a parade permit.

The ACLU became involved as the Nazis were being denied their right to free speech. The case sparked enormous controversy, and the ACLU was criticized for taking the side of Nazis. The ACLU leadership saw the case as a matter of principle, and argued that when anyone's free-speech rights are violated, everyone's rights are violated. (In the end, the Nazi march did not happen in Skokie, as the organization chose to hold a rally in Chicago instead.)

The publicity surrounding the Skokie case resonated for years. Many members resigned from the ACLU in protest.

In the 1980s, criticism of the ACLU came from the topmost reaches of the Reagan administration. Edwin Meese, an adviser to Ronald Reagan who later became attorney general, denounced the ACLU in a May 1981 speech, referring to the organization as a "criminals' lobby." Attacks on the ACLU continued throughout the 1980s. When Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush ran for president in 1988 ,he attacked his opponent, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, for being a member of the ACLU.

The ACLU Today

The ACLU has remained very active. In the modern era it boasts 1.5 million members, 300 staff attorneys, and thousands of volunteer attorneys.

It has participated in cases related to the security crackdowns after 9/11, the surveillance of American citizens, the actions of the law enforcement personnel at airports, and the torture of suspected terrorists. In recent years, the issue of immigration enforcement has been a major focus for the ACLU, which has issued warnings to immigrants traveling to parts of the United States facing suspected immigration crackdowns.

2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville
Clashes at 2017 Charlottesville rally raised questions for the ACLU. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A current controversy which has embroiled the ACLU is, once again, the issue of Nazis wanting to assemble and speak. The ACLU supported the right of white nationalist groups to assemble in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. The rally turned violent, and a woman was killed when a racist rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, the ACLU came in for withering criticism. At a time when many progressives were encouraged by the organization's willingness to challenge Trump administration policies, it once again found itself having to defend its position of defending Nazis.

The ACLU, post-Charlottesville, stated that it would carefully consider advocating for groups when the potential for violence was present and if the group would be carrying guns.

As debates raged about hate speech and whether some voices should be silenced, the ACLU was criticized for not taking up the cases of far-right figures who had been uninvited from college campuses. According to articles in the New York Times and elsewhere, it appeared the ACLU, following Charlottesville, had changed its position on which cases to handle.

For decades, supporters of the ACLU contended that the only client the organization ever really had was the Constitution itself. And advocating for civil liberties, even for characters considered despicable, was a perfectly legitimate position. Those representing the ACLU's national board contend that policies about which cases to champion have not changed.

It's obvious that in the era of the internet and social media, when speech can be used as a weapon as never before, challenges to the ACLU's guiding philosophy will continue.


  • "American Civil Liberties Union." Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, edited by Donna Batten, 3rd ed., vol. 1, Gale, 2010, pp. 263-268. Gale Ebooks.
  • "Baldwin, Roger Nash." Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, edited by Donna Batten, 3rd ed., vol. 1, Gale, 2010, pp. 486-488. Gale Ebooks.
  • Dinger, Ed. "American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)." International Directory of Company Histories, edited by Tina Grant and Miranda H. Ferrara, vol. 60, St. James Press, 2004, pp. 28-31. Gale Ebooks.
  • Stetson, Stephen. "American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)." Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court of the United States, edited by David S. Tanenhaus, vol. 1, Macmillan Reference USA, 2008, pp. 67-69. Gale Ebooks.
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McNamara, Robert. "ACLU: Purpose, History, and Current Controversies." ThoughtCo, Sep. 27, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, September 27). ACLU: Purpose, History, and Current Controversies. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "ACLU: Purpose, History, and Current Controversies." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).