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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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Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds, U.S. Air Force, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
How the U-2 Aircraft Made Area 51 Synonymous With UFOs
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Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds, U.S. Air Force, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Area 51 may be the world’s most famous secret military base. Established on an abandoned airfield in the Nevada desert, the facility has fueled the imaginations of conspiracy theorists scanning the skies for UFOs for decades. But the truth about Area 51’s origins, while secretive, isn’t as thrilling as alien autopsies and flying saucers.

According to Business Insider, the U.S. government intended to build a base where they could test a top-secret military aircraft without drawing attention from civilians or spies. That aircraft, the U-2 plane, needed to fly higher than any other manmade object in the skies. That way it could perform recon missions over the USSR without getting shot down.

Even over the desert, the U-2 didn’t go completely undetected during test flights. Pilots who noticed the craft high above them reported it as an “unidentified flying object.” Not wanting to reveal the true nature of the project, Air Force officials gave flimsy explanations for the sightings pointing to either natural phenomena or weather research. UFO believers were right to think the government was covering something up, they were just wrong about the alien part.

You can get the full story in the video below.

[h/t Business Insider]

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6 Times Multiple Leaders Reigned in a Single Year
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The longest presidential inauguration speech in U.S. history was given by William Henry Harrison when he took over from Martin Van Buren on March 4, 1841. Lasting a full hour and 45 minutes, the almost 8500-word speech was delivered amid a blinding snowstorm without a coat or hat to keep out the cold. Harrison's doctors blamed pneumonia caught that day for the president's death 31 days after taking office, though modern medical experts think the culprit was more likely enteric fever.

Whatever its cause, Harrison’s untimely death caused a brief political crisis, since it seemed unclear whether the president’s successor, Vice President John Tyler, should remain in power for Harrison’s full term or operate as acting president until a new election could be held. In the end, Tyler remained in office for the rest of Harrison’s term, becoming the United States’ third president in a single year. A similar situation emerged 40 years later, when James A. Garfield replaced Rutherford B. Hayes in March 1881 only to be replaced, after his death the following September, by Vice President Chester A. Arthur.

As tumultuous as these years were, they certainly aren’t the only in history to have seen an unusually quick turnaround in the highest offices in the land.


Shortly after Nero committed suicide in 68 C.E., the Roman Empire was thrown into a rocky 12 months known as The Year of the Four Emperors. Initially Nero was succeeded by the Roman governor Galba, but Galba soon proved just as unpredictable and as unpopular as his predecessor. As his reign became increasingly tyrannical (he had a habit of executing any senator he distrusted), he adopted a successor, slighting his longstanding supporter Otho, who subsequently arranged to have Galba and the successor assassinated on January 15, 69. Otho was crowned the same day, but Galba’s seven-month rule had caused such unrest across the empire that the northern province of Germania had already turned its back on Rome and appointed its own ruler, Aulus Vitellius—who now had his sights set firmly on the Roman throne.

In April, Vitellius marched his armies south, defeated Otho in battle, and swept to power. In celebration, he supposedly began spending so lavishly on parades and banquets in honor of himself that his entertainment bill alone almost bankrupted the state. But when his actions were questioned, he is said to have had his advisors, moneylenders, and debt collectors tortured and executed.

Once again, unrest spread throughout the empire, and in frustration many of the eastern provinces proclaimed Vespasian, one of Rome’s most successful generals, their new emperor. In December, an alliance of forces loyal to Vespasian met Vitellius’s dwindling supporters in battle at Cremona and ensured Vespasian’s successful march on Rome. After a short time on the run (with two of his chefs alongside him), Vitellius was caught, killed, and his body dumped in the Tiber. Vespasian took to the throne as the year came to an end, and quickly set about restoring some much-needed stability.

2. ENGLAND, 1016

Ethelred the Unready
Ethelred the Unready
Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

When the Saxon king Ethelred the Unready died on April 23, 1016, his 26-year-old son Edmund Ironside was elected to succeed him. He immediately faced the same struggle that had dogged his father’s final years: In the north of England, vast swathes of territory were being invaded and claimed by the Danish king Cnut the Great.

In the months that followed, Edmund’s armies clashed repeatedly with the Danes in a series of bloody but inconclusive battles, until finally a truce was agreed upon. England was to be divided between the two kings, with Edmund keeping the vast Saxon heartland of Wessex and Cnut ruling over the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia in the north and east. Just weeks later, however, Edmund too died suddenly and Cnut ascended to the throne unopposed as England’s third king in just eight months. Historians today are divided over whether foul play was responsible for Edmund’s death, and while some sources claim he succumbed to infected wounds inflicted in battle, at least one much more vivid account claims he was stabbed up the backside, while sitting on a latrine, by an assassin hiding in a cesspit.

3. FRANCE, 1316

 Louis X of France
Louis X
Hulton Archive/Getty

When Louis X of France died on June 5, 1316 (either of pleurisy or from drinking poisoned wine, depending on which version you believe), a problem emerged over who should succeed him. Although Louis had a daughter, Joan, from his disastrous first marriage, a male heir was required—but Louis’s second wife, Queen Clementia of Hungary, was still pregnant at the time of the king’s death, and with the sex of the child unknown, it was impossible to tell whether Louis had a male successor or not.

As a result, Louis’s younger brother Philip was appointed regent for the final five months of the queen’s pregnancy, until finally, on November 15, 1316, she gave birth to a baby boy. The child was immediately crowned King John I, but died just five days later. The cause of his death is a mystery, and rumors soon emerged that the young king had likely been killed or exiled. But whatever the truth, Louis’s brother Philip was able to retake to the throne in his own right as King Philip V, becoming France’s third king in just six months.

4. THE VATICAN, 1590

Pope Sixtus V
Pope Sixtus V
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After the death of Pope Sixtus V on August 27, 1590, Urban VII was elected to succeed him a little over two weeks later, on September 15. But by September 27, Urban VII, too, was dead. His 13-day papacy remains the shortest in history, but despite its brevity he is nevertheless credited with introducing one of the world’s first smoking bans, threatening anyone who “took tobacco in the porchway of or inside of a church” with immediate excommunication. After Urban’s death, Gregory XIV became pope—the third in just 100 days—on December 5, but he fared little better and died of a “gallstone attack” the following October.

5. RUSSIA, 1605

When Tsar Feodor I died without a male heir to succeed him in 1598, the Russian parliament elected his brother-in-law and former advisor, Boris Godunov, as his successor. Although the first few years of Boris’s reign were prosperous, his rule later became a disaster: Russia was devastated by a widespread famine that killed a third of the population, and Boris’s ever-weakening leadership saw the country soon descend into anarchy. On his death in April 1605, Boris’s 16-year-old son succeeded him as Tsar Feodor II, but his reign only lasted a few weeks as both he and his mother were assassinated. And that paved the way for a successor few people saw coming.

A few years earlier, in 1601, a young man living in Moscow had attracted considerable attention by asserting that he was Tsarevich Dmitri Ivanovich, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible. Tsarevich Dmitri, it was believed, had either been killed or had died in a terrible accident at the age of just 8 in 1591. This Muscovite Dmitri, however, claimed that the stories of his death had been greatly exaggerated: He had supposedly managed to escape and flee into exile, and with Russia on the verge of anarchy, he had now returned to take his rightful place as tsar.

Threatened with banishment for his treasonable actions, Dmitri fled to Lithuania, but there began forging support for his cause. With the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Catholic groups, and an army of mercenaries from across continental Europe now behind him, Dmitri marched on Moscow and swept to power on Feodor’s death to become Russia’s third tsar in as many months.

But even “False” Dmitri, as he became known, wasn’t to hold the throne for too long. A little under a year later, the Kremlin was stormed and Dmitri was killed by his opponents, having broken his leg fleeing from an upstairs window. (According to popular legend, as one final gesture, his body was cremated and his ashes fired from a cannon pointed in the direction of Poland.)

Dmitri was succeeded by Prince Vasili Shuisky (one of the opponents who had plotted his downfall), who became Tsar Vasili IV on May 19, 1606. His reign wasn’t exactly lacking in drama either—two more “False Dmitris” emerged over the coming years—leading to this entire shambolic period of Russian history becoming known as “The Time of Troubles.”


Lord North
Lord North
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It's generally agreed that on March 20, 1782, Lord North became the first Prime Minister in British history to resign, following a vote of no confidence. His 12-year term had seen him lead Britain through much of the American Revolutionary War, but the American victory at Yorktown in October 1781 had damaged his standing beyond repair and he was forced from power. His successor, the Marquess of Rockingham, was appointed a week later and quickly sought to negotiate a peaceful end to the war and to recognize America’s independence. Negotiations began in Paris in April—but were halted when Rockingham died suddenly during a flu epidemic after just 14 weeks in power.

In his place, King George III himself appointed Rockingham’s Secretary of State, William Petty, the Earl of Shelburne, as Britain’s third Prime Minister in just five months.


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