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Who's Who in the ACLU: Meet the Non-Profit Defending Your Civil Liberties

The American Civil Liberties Union is a non-profit organization that fights to maintain civil rights of Americans — that is, the rights and freedoms that are outlined in the Constitution and US law.

The group operates as a law firm, and a charity, and an advocacy group, all with the mission of protecting individual rights. And right now, it has its work cut out for it, ensuring that those rights are protected under a new White House administration. 

What does the ACLU do? 

The ACLU does a lot of things. It is first and foremost a public-interest law firm that takes on around 2,000 high-profile legal cases each year. The ACLU benefits from 100 staff attorneys, and an additional 2,000 volunteer attorneys. It is fully funded through private grants and donations, and is not affiliated with the US government. 

It is also a public charity with 750,000 members. 

The ACLU advocates on behalf of populations that find their voices restricted, and informs the public on government overreach. Through its action hub, you can learn about how to get involved in lobbying Congress on issues that matter to you — from immigration to reproductive rights. 

Currently, the non-profit finds itself on the front lines of what could be a protracted legal battle against the most powerful entity in the land — the United States government. 

Why is the ACLU in the news? 

When President Donald Trump signed his executive order on immigration, the ACLU was the first organization to take the administration to court. The ACLU achieved an impressive victory when the court issued an injunction (a temporary stay) on Trump’s refugee ban, which prevented the deportation of legal visa-holders stuck at airports on account of their nationality. 

(You can read the text of the ACLU’s case, Darweesh vs. Trump, here.)

The ACLU argued that the administration’s executive order broke significantly with the 14th Amendment, which ensures Due Process and Equal Protection under the law. Trump’s order banned all refugees for 120 days while the administration determines “extreme vetting” procedures, prioritized religious minorities from majority Muslim countries, and temporarily banned refugees from seven Middle Eastern and North African countries. 

Take action: Mr. President, We Don’t Support Your Policy on Refugees

“Clearly the judge understood the possibility for irreparable harm to hundreds of immigrants and lawful visitors to this country,” ACLU director Anthony Romero said in a statement. “Our courts today worked as they should as bulwarks against government abuse or unconstitutional policies and orders.”

The ACLU’s swift reaction to Trump’s executive order led to an unprecedented surge in donations over the past weekend, with the organization bringing in $24 million in a matter of days. 

Read more: Donations to Civil Rights Orgs, Subscriptions for Newspapers, Are Going Through the Roof

What issues does the ACLU focus on? 

In alphabetical order, the ACLU focuses on: capital punishment, criminal law reform, disability rights, free speech, HIV, human rights, immigrants’ rights, juvenile justice, LGBT rights, mass incarceration, national security, prisoners’ rights, privacy and technology, racial justice, religious liberty, reproductive freedom, voting rights, and women rights. 

What are some of the biggest ACLU cases? 

In the 1925 Scopes Trial, the ACLU defended John T. Scopes, who broke a state law banning the teaching of evolution in schools. The advocacy group lost the case, but succeeded at bringing the question of educational freedom into the public eye. 

The ACLU defended Japanese-Americans against internment during World War II. 

It also fought alongside the NAACP for the end of segregated schools in the 1954 Brown V. Board of Education case. 

If you’ve ever seen a police drama, you’re familiar with the phrase: “You have the right to remain silent.” This phrase is possible thanks to the ACLU’s 1966 Miranda V. Arizona case, which established “Miranda Rights,” meaning that police are required to read a suspect their rights before questioning. 

In 2003, the ACLU fought and won a case ensuring equal treatment for LGBTQ individuals by overturning a Texas law that criminalized same-sex intimacy. 

Has there been any controversy? 

Yes. 

During the Second Red Scare, a period of time beginning in the 1950s when American political leaders feared a communist revolution in the US, some ACLU members were accused of being Communists. 

The ACLU has also come under fire for defending the freedom of speech of far-right and white-supremacist individuals — such as a neo-Nazi group in Skokie, Illinois, that marched through a predominantly Jewish community in the 1970s. 

ACLU director Anthony Romero was also the subject of a fair amount of criticism for the way he managed the organization after taking over in 2001. His leadership style has been seen by some as heavy-handed and repressive, and he’s even been accused of lying. In 2006, a group of ACLU members created a website aimed at unseating Romero, which was ultimately unsuccessful. 

Who should I follow at the ACLU? 

Anthony Romero is the director of the ACLU. Read this GQ interview with Romero on the ACLU’s impending legal battle with Donald Trump. 

David Cole is the national legal director at the ACLU, and will be leading the legal charge against the Trump administration. Read this Washingtonian interview with Cole, and follow him on Twitter

Follow the ACLU on Twitter. Note, they’re pretty snarky.