The ACLU: The OG Defenders of Liberty, Still Fighting Today

A million + members today, 500 staff attorneys, and thousands more volunteer in ACLU offices nationwide. They stand up to injustice using the Constitution as their shield. The right-wing efforts to turn America into a fascist nation keep them in business. But it’s the work they’re used to doing. 

The ACLU: The OG Defenders of Liberty, Still Fighting Today

Owing to a 1960s childhood, I secretly wish for a Superman, (or today, a Black Panther) to save the day from the evildoers who want to control the world. I guess that’s why some people have a “savior.” But all is not lost, in addition to the brave prosecutors in today’s headlines, there is an established organization working, head down, to defend our rights, protected by the Constitution of the United States. They may not wear capes, but they fight for truth and justice every day.

The American Civil Liberties Union, still kicking.

Fear set the spark that became the ACLU. Fear of communists who would take away our rights as they had in Russia. Fear that their spies and operatives were at work on our land. That fear was weaponized. In November 1919 and January 1920, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer launched a round-up of radicals—according to his interpretation. The Palmer Raids trampled civil liberties as people were arrested without warrants and without protection from illegal search and seizure. They were subjected to brutality and horrible conditions.

A small group of people decided this was too much and formed the ACLU.

More than a million members today, 500 staff attorneys and thousands more volunteer in ACLU offices all over the country. They stand up to injustice using the Constitution as their shield. The right-wing efforts to turn America into a fascist nation keep them in business today. But it’s the work they’re used to doing. 

In the 1920s, when the state of Tennessee banned teaching evolution, ACLU attorneys recruited teacher John T. Scopes to teach the subject and challenge the law. When Scopes was prosecuted, they partnered with famed attorney, Clarence Darrow to defend him. Scopes was found guilty, but the verdict was later overturned because of a sentencing error. The national headlines put academic freedom on the map.

Attorneys with the ACLU served in similar ways throughout history. They spoke out against the internment of Japanese Americans by President Franklin Roosevelt. They joined the NAACP in challenging racial segregation in public schools and won.

The ACLU also played a strong role in the 1973 Supreme Court victories in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, which held that the right to privacy encompasses a woman's right to decide whether she will terminate or continue a pregnancy.

So here we go again. I’m sure they feel like the people who spray for roaches only to find them creeping out of the corners after the spray wears off. Academic freedom, civil rights, voting rights, and a woman’s right to privacy and reproductive freedom, all being challenged again for reasons I will never understand.

Not all cases make the headlines, but they often make history.

Last fall, “a federal district court judge struck down and permanently enjoined an Arkansas law that aimed to ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth, finding the law violates the Constitutional rights of transgender youth, their parents, and their medical providers. The court held that plaintiffs prevailed on all their claims, finding the ban violated the Equal Protection Clause, the Due Process Clauses, and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.” This was the country’s first categorical ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth.

And the ACLU has plans for Texas. They are joining a coalition of organizations challenging the ban targeting the health care of tens of thousands of trans youth in the state.

In Phoenix, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the City of Phoenix seeking an immediate stop to unconstitutional raids of the unhoused. Authorities there are accused of destroying their personal property without notice and giving homeless people only minutes to move their belongings. Add to that the city issued citations to the unhoused for sleeping and camping in public—where exactly would they expect people without shelter to go? The city of Phoenix's answer was to a dangerous encampment called, the Zone.

Attorneys worked on behalf of the group, Fund for Empowerment, to protect homeless victims. In a victorious court order, the city is prohibited from enforcing its Camping and Sleeping bans, seizing unsheltered people’s property without adequate notice, and from destroying personal property during raids.

ACLU attorneys are on the case in freedom of education in Idaho against the University of Idaho and Boise State University, where anti-abortion legislation has been expanded to speech related to abortion. Six professors risked arrest for teaching about abortion in philosophy, history, literature, political science, sociology, journalism, and social work. The ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of the professors and two teachers’ unions to challenge the Idaho law, No Public Funds for Abortion Act, (NPFAA) which criminalizes even the discussion of abortion.

The attorneys argue that “the NPFAA violates the First Amendment by restricting the academic speech of faculty at Idaho’s public universities… the NPFAA violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits vague laws because it is unclear where the NPFAA draws the line between permissible speech and speech that ‘promotes’ or ‘counsels in favor of’ abortion.”

The ACLU in Alabama played a role in challenging racial gerrymandering by Republicans creating discriminatory boundaries and undermining representation for Black voters. Although Black voters make up 27% of the state, districts were drawn to reduce Black representation to 14%.

This past June, the U.S. Supreme Court said, "In Alabama, a state where there are seven congressional seats and one in four voters is Black, the Republican-dominated state legislature had denied African American voters a reasonable chance to elect a second representative of their choice.” Surprisingly for this court, they ruled on the side of voting rights.

Countless numbers of cases involving discrimination or denials of individual freedoms for women, people living with disabilities, Black Indigenous People of Color, the impoverished, the aged, veterans, and so on are being fought daily, all over this country. The forces who work to undermine the rights of damn near everyone but their select group are as relentless as those roaches I mentioned.

There are no caped crusaders to save us from the deplorables who live among us, we all must remain mindful of the fact that our freedoms and our democracy will likely be attacked in some way, in every generation.

While there are no superheroes, there are people who have and continue to courageously stand on the front lines in these battles. I think it’s important to recognize them and their work.

For more info, check out the ACLU website.

Myra Jolivet is a storyteller. First a TV news anchor and reporter. Then came PR work and consulting. That's where she is today - banging her head against the wall - trying to help CEOs and political candidates tell their stories well. Myra writes a series of murder mysteries She was a kid with an imaginary friend. That says it all.

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