The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a nonpartisan non-profit organization whose 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, lobbying, and community education.
Our way forward lies in decisively turning our backs on the policies and practices that violate our greatest strength: our Constitution and the commitment it embodies to the rule of law. Liberty and security do not compete in a zero-sum game; our freedoms are the very foundation of our strength and security.
The American Civil Liberties Union has seen the point; it opposes liability for employers or schools who fail to prevent verbal sexual harassment that "has no other effect on its recipient than to create an unpleasant working [learning] environment." But I have found that many good civil-libertarians see these hostile environment cases (at least in the employment context) through the civil-rights lens; they thus agree with current law in accepting that an employer should be obligated to police the workplace to some extent against even purely verbal abuse when it becomes so pervasive and differentially "unpleasant" on grounds of race or sex to affect employees' terms and conditions of employment.
The organization has been involved in some of the higher profile challenges to the administration's antiterrorism efforts, including enemy combatant cases, the gag order on the attorney of convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid, and the use of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance search warrants for criminal investigations.
The American Civil Liberties Union has rejected $1.15 million from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, saying their effort to ensure that none of their money inadvertently underwrites terrorism or other unacceptable activities is a threat to civil liberties.
The Racial Justice Program actively supports affirmative action to secure racial diversity in educational settings, workplaces and government contracts, to remedy continuing systemic discrimination against people of color, and to help ensure equal opportunities for all people. As part of this commitment, we are working to defend affirmative action in states that are threatened for a civil rights rollback.
The ACLU relied upon First Amendment doctrines articulated consistently over the past fifty years by the Supreme Court, and recently by Chief Justice Warren Burger, who said: "The thread running through all of these cases is that prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights."
While it is now one of the most prominent examples of a litigation-based interest group, the ACLU began its existence demonstrating a commitment to constitutionalism outside the courts. Through coding a decade's worth of meeting minutes and examining archival sources, I demonstrate that the ACLU's mounting unpopularity rendered extrajudicial politics impossible, precipitating the ACLU's shift toward litigation. The ACLU's move toward litigation, despite its early devotion to political activism outside the courts, suggests that it is not always possible for political actors to make constitutional arguments without courts.
One of the ACLU’s earliest battles was the Scopes Trial of 1925. When the state of Tennessee passed a law banning the teaching of evolution, the ACLU recruited biology teacher John T. Scopes to challenge the law by teaching the banned subject in his class. When Scopes was eventually prosecuted, the ACLU partnered with celebrated attorney Clarence Darrow to defend him. Although Scopes was found guilty (the verdict was later overturned because of a sentencing error), the trial made national headlines and helped persuade the public on the importance of academic freedom.
So the ACLU was founded to defend and secure these rights and to extend them to people who have been excluded from their protection—Native Americans and other people of color; lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people; women; mental patients; prisoners; people with disabilities; and the poor.
The ACLU can legitimately claim much of the credit--or be assigned the blame, if you prefer--for the growth of modern constitutional law. Consult a standard constitutional law textbook and note the cases deemed important enough to be listed in the table of contents--the proverbial "landmark" cases. The ACLU was involved in 80 percent of them; in several critical cases, the Supreme Court's opinion was drawn directly from the ACLU brief.