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SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

9 Facts About the ACLU

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
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].

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

France Hires Two Cats to Get Rid of Rats in Government Offices

The French government just hired two new employees, but instead of making policy decisions, the civil servants will be responsible for keeping offices rat-free. As The Telegraph reports, the cats are the first official mousers to France.

The secretary to the prime minister, Christophe Castaner, brought in the cats after he saw that the mouse problem at the offices near the Elysee Palace was getting out of hand. They're named Nomi and Noé after the early duke of Brittany Nominoé.

Paris is home to about 4 million rats—nearly two for every citizen—and the capital's offices are just as vulnerable to infestation as other old buildings. Until now, government employees had been setting out traps to solve the vermin problem. With Nomi and Noé now living on site, the hope is that the pets will double as pest control.

The new hires aren't unprecedented: The British government employs over 100,000 cats to chase down rodents. Official mouser may sound like a cushy job, but the UK holds its felines to a high standard. Larry, the official Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office to two prime ministers, was nearly fired in 2012 for failing to react to a mouse in plain sight.

[h/t The Telegraph]


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