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American Civil Liberties Union

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is an American non-governmental organization devoted to defending civil rights and liberties. Lawsuits brought by the ACLU have been central to several important developments in U.S. constitutional law. The ACLU provides lawyers and legal expertise in cases where it believes that civil rights are being violated. In many cases where it does not provide legal representation, the ACLU submits amicus curiae briefs in support of its views. The organization has involved itself in cases to oppose official prayers in public schools, to prevent the display of religious symbols on public property, to prevent the interference of government into religious affairs, to support the legality of abortion and the rights of homosexuals, to defend the freedom of speech of persons with unpopular, controversial, even extremist, opinions (for example, neo-Nazis), to protect student speech, to protect defendants and suspects from unconstitutional police practices, and to maintain affirmative action. Some have expressed the view that the ACLU sometimes plays a role comparable to that played by public defenders, helping to ensure that even unpopular defendants receive due process. Critics of the ACLU While the organization is generally supported by individuals who identify themselves as liberal, it has on occasion taken on cases which are not in tune with liberal ideals ? such as defending the free speech rights of the Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazi groups, or NAMBLA, a group which supports pedophilia. Thus, the group is not without critics; however, the most vocal critics are generally conservatives. Many of these conservatives allege that the ACLU has not dedicated itself only to the defense of constitutional rights, but seeks to advance a liberal agenda. Some critics point to its opposition to the death penalty, which has been declared constitutional by the US Supreme Court while the ACLU continues to argue that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment restriction against "cruel and unusual punishment" and against international human rights norms. Critics also argue that the ACLU has not been consistent in defending all civil liberties, pointing out that it is not active in protecting gun rights; these critics claim these rights enjoy the similar constitutional protection as "civil rights" and should be treated equally by the ACLU if it is not motivated by a political agenda. History and Notable Cases The ACLU was formed in 1920 as the Civil Liberties Bureau. Founders include Crystal Eastman and Roger Baldwin. During that year, it took the side of aliens threatened with deportation by Attorney General Palmer for their radical views. (See Palmer Raids. It also opposed attacks on the rights of the International Workers of the World and other labor unions to meet and organize. Since its founding, the ACLU has been involved in many cases. A few of the most significant are discussed here: In 1925, the ACLU persudaded John T Scopes to defy Tennessee's anti-evolution law in a court test. Clarence Darrow, a member of the ACLU National Committee, headed Scopes' legal team. The ACLU lost the case and Scopes was fined $100. The fine (but not the conviction) was later reversed by the Tennessee Supreme Court. In 1942, a few months after the Japanese attack on [[Pearl Harbor]], the ACLU affiliates on the West Coast became some of the sharpest critics of the government's policy on enemy aliens and US citizens descended from enemy ancestry. This included the relocation of Japanese-American citizens, internment of aliens, prejudicial curfews (U.S. v. Hirabayashi, 1942), and the like. In 1954, the ACLU played a role in the Brown v. Board of Education which led to the ban on segregation in US public schools. In 1973, the organization was the first major national organization to call for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon, giving as reasons the violation by the Nixon administration of civil liberties. That same year, the ACLU was involved in the cases of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Walton, in which the Supreme Court held that the constitutional right of privacy extended to women seeking abortions. In 1977, the ACLU filed suit against the Village of Skokie, Illinois, seeking an injunction against the enforcement of three town ordinances outlawing Nazi parades and demonstrations. A federal district court struck down the ordinances in a decision eventually affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The ACLU's action in this case led to the resignation of about 15% of the membership from the organization (25% in Illinois), especially of Jewish members. A cutback in its activities was avoided by a special mailing which elicited $500,000 in contributions. Federal Judge Bernard M. Decker described the principle involved in the case as follows: "It is better to allow those who preach racial hatred to expend their venom in rhetoric rather than to be panicked into embarking on the dangerous course of permitting the government to decide what its citizens may say and hear .... The ability of American society to tolerate the advocacy of even hateful doctrines ... is perhaps the best protection we have against the establishment of any Nazi-type regime in this country." The ACLU filed suit to challenge the Arkansas 1981 Creationism statute, which required the teaching in public schools of the biblical story of creation as a scientific alternative to evolution. The law was declared unconstitutional by a Federal District Court.
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