The American Civil Liberties Union



In the 2nd decade of the 20th century, a pacifist anti-war organization known as the American Union Against Militarism was created in New York City to lobby against American involvement in World War 1. Prior to the start of the war, they had substantial public support, but that began to change in 1917. By spring America entered the war. Young men were being drafted into the military, and conscientious objector status was limited to long-time members of traditionally pacific religious groups, such as Quakers, Mennonites and the Amish. Tolerance for political dissent was also at a low ebb, with Congress considering legislation that would permit censorship of the press. In this atmosphere, a perfect storm of domestic hostility to civil rights, the AUAM’s explicitly anti-war stance was not popular.

The new, broad and vaguely worded Espionage Act created a climate of fear among anti-war activists, and the Post Office refused to deliver some of their publications. Fighting broke out between pro and anti-war groups, scenes not unlike today around the country when MAGA supporters are confronted by and clash with pro-democracy protesters.

The military began spying on anti-war protesters, and the climate for dissent became so toxic the AUAM attempted to mute members who protested the war. The AUAM dissolved in 1922 after the war ended. While the AUAM still existed, a committee known as the Civil Liberties Bureau was established and managed by Crystal Eastman and Roger Baldwin. In 1920, they spun this group off into an organization of its own – the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU was born in a victorious post-war nation while the populace was turning its attention from war to peace. President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations was formed the same year.

Goals and Resources

As stated in its online FAQ, the ACLU “works in the courts, legislatures, and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” As history and contemporary events have demonstrated, these liberties are frequently under pressure or outright attack when they conflict with commercial interests or opposing ideological goals. The incorporation of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution to firmly establish essential rights was a major step forward for human rights, but those basic rights still require defense. The ACLU serves that purpose.

For people aligned with the ACLU’s goals, the organization has been a shield against tyranny by the majority in situations where ethnic and minority group rights have been or are abused. Maintaining consistency in this effort means the ACLU has sometimes defended unpopular groups, such as a fundamentalist Christian church, the Krishna cult, the KKK, Oliver North, the National Socialist Party and NAMBLA.

These difficult cases, which impact the ACLU’s fundraising efforts, were taken on because they center on free speech and other rights that can be eroded by first denying them to detested groups, creating a pretext for denying them more broadly. This is a challenging task when ideological and even mainstream media assault the ACLU for defending views many find indefensible.

This dynamic means the ACLU must not only defend rights, but defend itself as an organization when even their own supporters are aghast at their selection of clients. The ACLU doesn’t have to accept every case they are called on to take up, and budget constraints have an impact on those choices too. When an unpopular group is added to the ACLU’s to-do list, it’s because a key right is imperiled.

Current critics – usually on the Right – are lambasting the ACLU for not doing more to defend right-wing speech in an era when many extreme right viewpoints are being deplatformed in social media. Thereby demonstrating the ACLU can be and is attacked for not acting. This reflects the fragility of personal liberties; subjective viewpoints create different interpretations of what essential rights mean, and groups with agendas will manipulate public opinion in different directions. The ACLU seeks to create and maintain objective standards that benefit all by establishing legal precedents that are protective of civil liberties.

Courts are the main arena in which the ACLU does battle, with public opinion a necessary, if secondary, arena. The record of the ACLU’s successful cases stretches dates back to 1925, with Gitlow v. New York, in defense of pamphlet distribution advocating overthrow of the government. This case also ties the 1st amendment to the 14th, clarifying that the Supreme Court ruling also applies to states.

The range of issues addressed by the organization is very broad, including capital punishment, disability rights, human rights, religious liberty, national security, reproductive justice, voting rights, women’s rights, juvenile justice, racial justice, immigrants, and more. As much as the ACLU is reviled in some quarters, it also gains grudging respect for defending civil liberties for all. This means the group’s base of supporters is also broad. More so in some camps than others, but robust enough to remain relevant and effective over decades.

The moral basis for the ACLU’s programs is firmly rooted in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights and basic universal principles of civil liberties. The cultural impact is varied, as the broad range of issues it addresses affect a wide spectrum of society. It has achieved status as an American institution, sometimes loved and sometimes condemned (sometimes by the same people), but perceived as a formidable legal force to be reckoned with.

The ACLU relies on contributions and grants to fund year to year activity, which amounted to $168 million in 2021. It picked up another $3 million from other sources for a total of $171 million, which is larger than Gallaudet University’s entire annual budget. The ACLU receives no government funding. $31 million goes to salaries, $5 million to fundraising costs, and the rest to ‘other expenses’ – litigation, communication (includes lobbying) and public education.

Organizational work is divided into three Centers.

 The Center for Liberty manages the LGBT & AIDS Project, the Reproductive Freedom Project, the Women’s Rights Project, the Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, and the Disability Rights Program.

The Center for Democracy includes the National Security Project, the Human Rights Program, the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, the Voting Rights Project, and the Immigrants’ Rights Project.

The Trone Center for Justice and Equality runs the National Prison Project, the Criminal Law Reform Project, the Racial Justice Program and the Capital Punishment Project.


The ACLU has a network of staffed affiliate chapters in every state, Puerto Rico and Washington, DC for organizational and lobbying purposes. Due to its longevity, track record, prominence and resources, the ACLU also often organizes and leads temporary coalitions for lobbying. For example, an appeal to president Biden to support transparency in his administration, published February 22, 2021, presents forty-four organizations as co-signers in a lobbying coalition. (See Sources appendix for the full list)

The ACLU is a member of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. As their website states, they “The Leadership Conference was founded in 1950 as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights by A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; and Arnold Aronson, a leader of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.”

The Conference’s work encompasses three broad areas; democracy, justice, and inclusion/opportunity. In democracy the Conference has worked on the 2020 census, legal support in courts and voting rights. In justice the focus is on immigrant rights, justice reform and policing. The inclusion and opportunity portfolio consists of economic security, education, fighting hate and bias, media and tech.

All of these issues overlap the efforts of the ACLU, and effectively extend ACLU’s efforts and available resources. This is a win-win arrangement for both the coalition and the ACLU. A sampling of issues the coalition has worked on together include Homeland Security DACA rules, American compliance with the Convention on Torture, criminal legal reform and racial equity, civil rights data collection, regulations regarding home confinement and much more.

It’s worth noting one organization that is not affiliated or in any coalitions with the ACLU; Jay Sekulow’s American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). The similar acronym is not accidental. It was chosen to confuse, with the aim of supplanting the ACLU in the public mind. The values promoted by the ACLJ are often diametrically opposed to those of the ACLU, also by design. For example, it purports to promote religious liberty while in fact working to legally impose specific faith-based values on the populace at large.


One key aspect of the ACLU’s identity is its reputation as a straight shooter – that is, it defends civil liberties regardless of the identity of those whose liberties have been violated. At times this has led to fierce tensions within the organization and public condemnation for representing deeply unpopular groups.

This same principled approach, however, has made it possible for the ACLU to expand its base of support. While the U.S. political Right delights in bashing the ACLU at every opportunity, voters have recognized the ACLU has been, if not politically neutral, then at least consistent in making their cases in accordance with the U.S. Constitution and elevating civil rights for all.

In the current environment, remaining politically neutral is arguably not an option. The stakes are democracy vs. autocracy. The ACLU has been subjected to a free fire zone of critique from multiple viewpoints, including the Left. While this has not derailed the ACLU from their efforts, it has disrupted operations, created uncertainty in the ACLU’s workforce, and degraded confidence in their ability to be a neutral arbiter of civil rights.

The ACLU still claims allegiance to that standard and characterizes other positions as the product of passionate personal outbursts by leadership and staff. As may be, but said outbursts also color public perception of the organization, and opposition will certainly exploit the doubts they’ve generated.

This blossom of polarization within the ACLU and its constituency mirrors the broader polarizations that have formed in American society. These patterns of polarization aren’t completely new, but they are far more intense and pervasive in the USA now than we’ve seen in living memory.

In essence, the ACLU acquired the role of national referee on matters related to civil rights by attacking violations and defending its exercise in courts around the nation. Continued ownership of this role is contingent on being perceived as neutral, and it is precisely this perception that is subject to questions.

In addressing these concerns, the ACLU must navigate a field of social landmines. When it fails to act in accordance with past practice, it is exposed to accusations of bias. When it fails to act vigorously against a rising tide of civil rights violations, it is exposed to accusations of complicity with that tide. It is a classic damned if you do, damned if you don’t dilemma.

Given these constraints, the most sensible path forward is the bold one; damn the torpedos, full speed ahead. Which is to say the ACLU should go all-out in defense of civil liberties where violations occur. If this approach appears lopsided in terms of who is defended and who is prosecuted, that is a reflection of the respective camps’ attitudes towards civil rights.

Over the long run, the ACLU’s identity and reputation rest more on its defense of civil rights than perceptions of balance. If civil rights are permitted to slowly melt away in the service of maintaining an ambiguous balance, the ACLU’s reason for being melts with them.


The ACLU’s focus is stated in its name; civil liberties. But civil liberties encompass a wide range of issues, as enumerated in the seventh paragraph of the ‘goals and resources’ section above. Cleavage among these issues vary; some, such as a women’s right to choose and voting rights, are severe. Others are less severe, but in a sharply polarized electorate, severity is relative. What were once largely differences of opinion have morphed into existential threats to democracy.

Because the ACLU is firmly supported and enjoys a consistent budget year to year, its political circumstance remains robust. It is currently active with staffed offices in all 50 states and engaged in litigation around the nation. Because challenges to civil liberties are constant, the ACLU’s work requires persistent engagement to be effective. In 2020 litigation, it filed 406 legal actions against the Trump administration and 195 pandemic-related cases defending the right to vote, protect vulnerable prisoners, protect abortion clinics in regions that attempted to use the pandemic as a pretext to close them, and support science-based solutions for pandemic mitigation.

Nearly half of the ACLU’s expenses go to affiliate support, in recognition that much of our political issues are local. This funding is especially crucial for educating voters about the impact of proposed local, county and state legislation on civil liberties, voting rights, policing reform and many other issues. Successful local initiatives can become templates for action elsewhere on any given issue, from any given vantage point. Continual immersion in the tactical details of these battles allows the ACLU to anticipate strategies and counter-strategies, knowledge that enables more effective use of limited resources.

For example, Minnesota attempted to impose a witness signature requirement for mail-in ballots, a measure that deliberately ran counter to the pre-vaccine pandemic imperative for social distancing. The ACLU not only defeated that effort, it also won a requirement that the state send absentee ballot request forms to every registered voter who had not already requested one.

A successful ACLU lawsuit in Wisconsin required the state to send free IDs for voters who need one after the state imposed strict ID requirements. This effectively nullified the intended impact of the requirement.
 In another example, the Trump administration supported a lawsuit that aimed to block the use of ballot drop boxes in Pennsylvania. This initiative was defeated by ACLU litigation.

The ACLU’s public education efforts often focus attention on local down-ballot races featuring candidates with public service records of hostility to civil liberties. This outreach is not only protective of personal freedom, it’s also less costly in the long run for the ACLU. Candidates who understand the importance of civil liberties are less likely to provoke litigation.

On these and other issues, public polarization is growing. The Republican party has been captured by an increasing reliance on nationalistic propaganda and conspiracy theories, paralyzing more constructive efforts and sidelining experienced public officials who reject nonsense. This new core of the GOP is very hostile to civil rights for all and specifically hostile to voting rights, with a fanatical intensity that seldom passes judicial review. In some respects this makes the ACLU’s job easier.

Because the ALCU’s defense of civil liberties has been principled and consistent in the face of ongoing conservative assault, its political position is at most unchanged and at best enhanced. After Trump won in 2016, donations and membership in the ACLU soared. This demonstrates widespread appreciation of the organizations’ role in defending civil rights.

Campaign Finance

The ACLU is not generally regarded as a major player in retail politics – it doesn’t endorse specific candidates, nor does it directly campaign in support of them. It does however have a profound indirect influence on elections through advocacy for specific policies, public education on issues/policy, support and opposition to specific legislation. For example, the ACLU has been a strong advocate for voting rights, by fighting gerrymandering efforts, vote suppression and encouraging voter registration. This approach doesn’t engage directly with electoral politics, but does influence the environment in which people vote. These effects can be lasting, going beyond any single election.

One of the ACLU’s stances with regard to campaign finance puzzles even some of the ACLU strongest supporters – its position on the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. The case was primarily about corporate funding of campaigns, with corporations claiming that spending money in support of their preferred candidates and issues amounted to political speech. Because the law as currently constituted regards corporations as persons, they enjoy rights as persons, including the First Amendment protections on speech. 

The ACLU recognizes and decries the negative impacts of corporate funding, but also defends the expression of political views through cash. In response to concerns about the disproportionate spending capacity of corporations in comparison with individual and public interest group spending, the ACLU advocates public campaign financing. This response maintains a dynamic where corporate spending in support of candidates who oppose public campaign financing sustains corporate dominance in campaign finance, thereby preserving corporate influence and access.

Thus the ACLU, in its earnest efforts to defend 1st Amendment rights, defers to the use of money to manipulate elections that endanger those rights. Twelve years decision, we see that risk becoming reality with speech limits now being imposed on public school teachers, with no indication that proponents will stop there.


Lobbying is a major part of what the ACLU does. Commercial support for civil liberties is scant, so it falls to the union’s membership to support activism in defense of civil liberties. The ACLU has been remarkably effective in this. The primary lobbying instrument has been litigation. As the organization itself points out, they have participated in more Supreme Court cases than any other private organization. The ACLU characterizes itself as the nation’s largest public interest law firm, with 500 staff lawyers,offices in every state, and thousands of volunteer lawyers.

Litigation is a form of bare-knuckles lobbying, one that bypasses political conversation and goes directly to the law. Rather than plead with public officials to act on issues, the ACLU makes a case to judges and obtains decisions that drive actions by public officials. The ACLU works within the system, but favors the judicial branch, where the impact of court cases have lasting effect. It sometimes does so by challenging policy and actions – as it did in filing 56 cases in Donald Trump’s first year in office – and sometimes by defending challenges to existing law, such as North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Arkansas’ efforts to legalize vote suppression measures. On many issues – gay marriage, reproductive rights, personal privacy, religious intrusion in public schools – the ACLU has won significant court victories. This track record has historically restrained attacks on civil liberties, due to the knowledge that the ACLU will contest and has an excellent chance of prevailing over sloppy efforts to chip away at civil liberties.

Lobbying is also about the broad power of public persuasion, because this has knock-on effects. The more people can be rallied in support of principled public policy, the easier it becomes to make it law. Through the 1970s and 80s, gay marriage was a political and social nonstarter. The ACLU supported gay people on this issue as a matter of principle – that gay couples should enjoy the same right to marry that their straight peers do. It took decades for a consensus in favor of this view to develop. Marijuana legalization has followed a similar trajectory and the ACLU has been active on this topic as well. Racial disparities in arrests and equity in reform remain contentious, especially as some states legalize possession and others, such as Mississippi, continue to send people to prison for possession of cannabis legally purchased in another state. The ACLU continues to lobby, litigate and advocate on behalf of people affected by draconian laws initiated by the “War on Drugs”.


It is clear that the bulk of the ACLU’s membership comes from the left side of the political spectrum. This is unsurprising given that support for civil liberties is far more prevalent on the left, which generally concerns itself with balance and fairness. The right doesn’t ignore civil liberties, but tends to focus on those perceived to maintain order and hierarchy, such as gun rights. There is also an economic component to this; the right seeks to conserve wealth, the left seeks to share it. To some degree, people are more drawn to those parts of the political spectrum that are consistent with their personal interests than ideas that are more broadly beneficial.

As Robert Heinlein observed, people are not rational animals, they are rationalizing animals – they start with an interest, then seek validation for it. It has also been observed that reality has a left-wing bias. Given the right’s departure from reality in recent years, this is not a high bar. The collective identity of the left, and thus of many ACLU members and supporters, relies on an evidence-based world view. This is particularly helpful in litigation, where evidence is everything. Ideology is all very well, but it remains aspirational unless evidence exists to validate it.

It is of course possible to fabricate evidence, provide misleading statistics, and bamboozle people into believing things that just aren’t so. This is why transparency, openness and peer review are also valued by the left as elements that act to moderate ideological extremes. The ACLU embraces and reflects these values because they are essential to upholding civil liberties. Many people understand and appreciate the curation of liberty. Less attention is paid to the ‘civil’ part of the ACLU’s name, but it’s vital. Civil is the root of civilized and civilization, an acceptance that living among others requires some tradeoffs – personal liberty must be balanced with the rights of others. There is no right to exploitation of others (which doesn’t stop some people from trying). To prevent it, people bind together in self-defense. This is the essence of the ACLU’s purpose, and is a key to attracting new members.

Total ACLU membership as of 2018 comes to 1.84 million. It received a significant boost in membership and funding following Donald Trump’s election in 2016, growing by 400,000 members. They come from a distinguished lineage of founders – Helen Keller was one – members and supporters, including Supreme Court justices Felix Frankfurter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, author Kurt Vonnegut, Salman Rushdie, W. Kamau Bell, Scott Turow, Neil Gaiman, Alyssa Milano, Barack Obama, Marlee Matlin, Harry Belafonte, Tom Hanks, Lewis Black, Tina Fey, Norman Lear, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Stone, Ben & Jerry (yes, the ice cream guys) and more.

There’s really no requirement for membership in the ACLU beyond making a modest donation. The primary theme in membership outreach has long been the defense of civil liberties. This has worked well over time because civil liberties are frequently challenged or encroached upon, making the need for defense plain and evident.

It is not, however, self-evident, and to this end the ACLU’s website goes into some detail about historical and contemporary challenges, how the ACLU has dealt with them and continues to do so. This meets the need to educate each new generation about what civil liberties are, why they matter, what we lose if they go away, and why preserving them requires continual active defense and support. Civil liberties are a foundational element of democracy. Without them, democracy is easily subverted.

This is a broadly effective strategy, but sometimes a confusing one when the ACLU takes up the defense of rights among groups that are widely reviled, as previously described. Cases based on principle have virtuous and admirable aspects. But they also sometimes hurt the organization’s reputation and do substantial damage to membership numbers and growth. Navigating this tricky space earns the ACLU both respect and intense criticism.

Evaluation and Recommendations

The ACLU is widely perceived as an effective litigator on behalf of civil rights. To a great extent it has earned that reputation, although it is subject to the vagaries of case selection, court composition, ideological leans of judges and circuits and public support. has an interesting examination of the ACLU’s track record before the Supreme Court between 1929-1999.

In earlier decades, with fewer cases, the ACLU won at least 68% of all its cases before the Court, up to 100% in 1939. In the 70s the ACLU became more active, taking on more cases, and the win average fell to ~50% and stayed there through 1999. Unfortunately an overall survey of the ACLU’s win/loss record in litigation since 2000 doesn’t seem to be available. The ACLU was instrumental in restraining Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine civil liberties, filing 56 lawsuits against his administration during their first year in office.

This includes shutting down a ban on transgender participation in the military, curbing efforts to implement a Muslim ban, delivering a win against voter suppression in North Carolina, prevailing in a 2015 case that legalized same-sex marriage and prosecuting a nationwide, state by state campaign aimed a preserving women’s right to choose regarding abortion. Given the current dominance of Trump-appointed right-wing justices on the Supreme Court, it’s not hard to forecast a drop in the number of winning cases. In terms of strategy going forward, the ACLU’s efforts are constrained by this reality; wins at the district and appeals level can be reversed at the Supreme Court.

The ACLU’s historic approach has focused on litigation, but in the current climate it may be prudent to expand its mandate to electoral politics – highlight candidates who support civil liberties, give them more exposure and support, encourage state affiliates to provide local endorsements, contribute to key campaigns, join with other related orgs in get-out-the-vote campaigns. Congress needs more progressive House members to expedite nominations of judges friendly to civil liberties. The ACLU can help activate members to vote for candidates who will get those judges through congressional approval quickly.

ACLU’s Greatest Hits

ACLU accomplishments


  1. Liberties Union, American Civil. “ACLU Accomplishments.” American Civil Liberties Union. Accessed April 29, 2022.
  2. Liberties Union, American Civil. “ACLU History.” American Civil Liberties Union. Accessed April 29, 2022.
  3. Liberties Union, American Civil. “ACLU 2020 Annual Report” American Civil Liberties Union. Accessed April 29, 2022.
  4. Liberties Union, American Civil. “Defending Free Speech” American Civil Liberties Union. Accessed April 29, 2022.
  5. Liberties Union, American Civil. “Defending Speech We Hate” American Civil Liberties Union. Accessed April 29, 2022.
  6. Liberties Union, American Civil. “Affiliates” American Civil Liberties Union. Accessed April 29, 2022.
  7. Liberties Union, American Civil. “Coalition Letter” American Civil Liberties Union. Accessed April 29, 2022.

Coalition partners

American Civil Liberties Union

Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University

American Immigration Council

American Oversight

Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy Clinic

Campaign Legal Center

Center for Constitutional Rights

Center for Media and Democracy

Center for Responsive Politics

Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic, University at Buffalo School of Law

Common Cause

Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic


Rights & Dissent

Demand Progress

Digital Democracy Project

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Electronic Privacy Information Center

Essential Information

Good Government Now

Good Jobs First

Government Accountability Project

Immigrant Legal Resource Center

International Documentary Association

International Refugee Assistance Project

Issue One

Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health

Mainers for Accountable Leadership

Media Freedom & Information Access Clinic

Michigan State University First Amendment Law Clinic

National Coalition Against Censorship

National Freedom of Information Coalition

National Immigration Law Center

National Immigration Litigation Alliance

National Security Archive

New Media Rights

Open The Government

PEN America

Project On Government Oversight

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Society of Professional Journalists


The FOIA Project

Union of Concerned Scientists

  1. Conference, Leadership. “History.” The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, August 28, 2019.
  2. Powell, Michael. “Once a Bastion of Free Speech, the A.C.L.U. Faces an Identity Crisis.” The New York Times. The New York Times, June 6, 2021.
  3. Con, Pro. “Batting Average of the ACLU in the US Supreme Court: ACLU:” ACLU, March 25, 2022.
  4. Reints, Renae. “The ACLU’s Membership Has Surged and It’s Putting Its New Resources to Use.” Fortune. Fortune, July 5, 2018.

Successful Cases


Gallaudet University FY 2021 budget

Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights The ACLU and Citizens United


A very basic search on “ACLU” at Google News makes it clear the organization is very active and relevant today. Just a sampling of stories returned on the first page of search on the evening of 3/12/22:

The ACLU sues to block Texas from investigating parents of trans youth

ACLU looking into ties between Hanover County School Board, Alliance Defending Freedom

Two students and ACLU sue Missouri school district over removing 8 books from libraries

ACLU of New Hampshire: Drawing a line in the sand to protect abortion access

ACLU joins local lawyer to represent student punched repeatedly in viral video

ACLU Lawsuit Accuses ICE Jailers of Denying Detainees Vaccines

Once a Bastion of Free Speech, the A.C.L.U. Faces an Identity Crisis

ACLU of Maine sues state’s leal services system for poor defendants.

EFF, ACLU and 30+ Community Groups Oppose Weakening of San Francisco’s Surveillance Ordinance.

ACLU sues Calvert County Sherriff challenging use of onerous fees to block disclosure of policing records

Defense of Hate Speech