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9 Facts About the ACLU

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SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The American Civil Liberties Union is one of the most famous civil-rights organizations in the U.S., defending First Amendment freedoms for everyone, regardless of their views. Here are nine things you might not know about the almost century-old organization.


There are two arms of the ACLU. The ACLU itself is a 501(c)(4) corporation, meaning that it is a membership organization that participates in lobbying state and federal government. Because of its lobbying status, you can’t take a tax deduction for your donations to the ACLU. But the ACLU Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization, just like most nonprofits. Those tax-deductible donations go only toward funding litigation and education programs.


Created as the Civil Liberties Bureau after World War I broke out in 1917, the ACLU was founded to, in part, oppose the creation of a draft and protect conscientious objectors to World War I, who at the time were subject to routine harassment and restrictions on what they could say for their choice to avoid service. It was initially a committee within the American Union Against Militarism, but split off due to disagreements about the organization’s vocal opposition to the government’s war policies. Then called the National Civil Liberties Bureau, it lobbied for conscientious objectors to be protected in the Selective Service Act and advised men worried about the draft. It was reorganized as the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920.


While the ACLU does have a full-time legal staff, it relies heavily on the work of volunteer attorneys. These “cooperating attorneys” analyze proposed legislation for civil liberties issues and write commentary and complaints to government administrations and officials. As former ACLU legal director Burt Neuborne points out in a 2006 article, “one of the unparalleled strengths of the organization is the ability to mobilize literally thousands of volunteer lawyers in defense of the Bill of Rights" [PDF].


On July 4, 1917, the paper ran an editorial called “Jails Are Waiting for Them” arguing that “sensible people of good will do not make the mistake of believing that speech can be literally and completely free in any civilized country.” The author argued that “inevitably there must be restrictions on speech,” and accused the “little group of malcontents” of “antagonizing the settled policies of our Government, of resisting the execution of its deliberately formed plans, and of gaining for themselves immunity from the application of laws to which good citizens willingly submit as essential to the national existence and welfare.”


Woodrow Wilson was adamant that free speech didn’t always apply during a war. Arguing for a censorship provision in the Espionage Act of 1917, Wilson wrote to a member of Congress that censorship is “absolutely necessary to the public safety.” The provision didn’t make it into the law (although in 1918 the Sedition Act was added to the same effect), but that didn’t stop the federal government from suppressing some of the activities of the National Civil Liberties Bureau. Though relations between the group and Wilson’s administration were initially friendly, in July 1917, the U.S. Postal Service banned 12 of the NCLB’s pamphlets promoting civil liberties from being sent in the mail. In 1918, the Wilson administration found the bureau’s work in violation of the Espionage Act because it encouraged men to refuse to participate in the draft, and its office was later raided by the Justice Department.


The ACLU was the main driver behind the Scopes Monkey Trial, the landmark case that debated whether a teacher could defy state legislation banning the theory of evolution from public school curriculums. The case was actually a bit of a publicity stunt for the town of Dayton, Tennessee. The ACLU had placed an advertisement in the Chattanooga Daily Times offering to finance a case to challenge the law, which had been passed in 1925. Hoping to bring some fame and fortune to their town, Dayton's leaders immediately gathered to find a suitable teacher for the role. They ended up choosing the 24-year-old John Scopes, who hadn’t actually taught biology (he was new to teaching, and taught math, physics, and chemistry his first year). He didn’t recall teaching evolution at all, in fact, but he agreed to participate anyway, and he was arrested a few days later, with ACLU member Clarence Darrow serving as his lawyer. The trial lasted just eight days, and the jury deliberated for less than nine minutes; Scopes was found guilty and fined $100.

The ACLU planned to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the verdict was later reversed due to a technicality. According to the ACLU, "the ultimate result of the trial was pronounced and far-reaching: the Butler Act was never again enforced and over the next two years, laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution were defeated in 22 states."


The ACLU participates in more Supreme Court cases than any other private organization. ACLU lawyers represented the petitioner in the 1944 case on Japanese internment camps, Korematsu v. United States, and Mildred and Richard Loving, the interracial couple at the heart of Loving v. Virginia. The organization also regularly files amicus briefs, which are written arguments submitted to the court by someone who has an interest in the case and wants to influence the ruling but isn’t directly involved. The ACLU has filed amicus briefs in landmark cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Miranda v. Arizona.


The ACLU’s crusade for freedom of speech extends to the full political spectrum—even causes that might be morally abhorrent to some of the organization’s liberal supporters. In 1978, it famously represented a Nazi group that wanted to hold a march in the heavily Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois, which included a large population of Holocaust survivors. Some ACLU members resigned over that choice, but the organization as a whole held that the principle at stake was still free speech. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

It has since also defended Confederate flags on license plates, online writing by NAMBLA members, the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to picket military funerals, and the Ku Klux Klan’s right to adopt a highway.

“Historically, the people whose opinions are the most controversial or extreme are the people whose rights are most often threatened,” the organization explains on its website. “Once the government has the power to violate one person’s rights, it can use that power against everyone. We work to stop the erosion of civil liberties before it’s too late.”


While defending Communists was a major part of the ACLU’s work in the early 20th century—it was accused of being a Communist front by the House Un-American Activities Committee—it was not entirely immune to the Red Scare’s influence. It banned Communists from serving on its board of directors in 1940, along with any other member of a “political organization which supports totalitarian dictatorship in any country.”

With that decree, it booted one of its founders, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was publicly a member of the Communist Party, from the organization. It repealed her expulsion 36 years later, a dozen years after her death.

“Much of the internal rhetoric that surrounded the ACLU's deeply principled, but controversial, decision to defend the Nazi Party's right to march in Skokie, Illinois was driven by a fear of repeating the 1940 betrayal of principle,” Burt Neuborne wrote in his history of Flynn's ouster [PDF].

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.