ACLU History: Advocating for Justice at the Supreme Court

Document Date: September 1, 2010

Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood, 2005: Jennifer Dalven, Deputy Director of the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, at courthouse press conference after the Ayotte arguments

"America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves." - Abraham Lincoln

Among the ACLU's proudest moments are those in which it has come to the defense of civil liberties in times of national crisis.

That defense began in the early part of the 20th century, in response to the massive suppression of freedom of speech and of the press by President Woodrow Wilson during World War I. At the time, labor strikes in our nation's cities terrified millions of Americans who feared that law and order were collapsing. Growing anti-war sentiment also caused unrest, and Congress responded by passing the infamous Espionage Act of 1917, which was amended with the Sedition Act of 1918 to additionally criminalize any activity that threatened the administration in power. In 1918, riots broke out, paralyzing the country, and federal troops were called in to restore order in many cities. In June of that year, the country was shaken by politically motivated bombings, including an explosion at the home of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer.

What followed was one of the worst violations of civil liberties in American history. Law enforcement officials swooped down on suspected radicals in 33 cities, arresting 6,000 people, most of them immigrants. The raids involved the wholesale abuses of the law: arrests without a warrant, unreasonable searches and seizures, wanton destruction of property, police brutality, and prolonged detention.

In the midst of this crisis the National Civil Liberties Bureau was formed – the predecessor of the ACLU, and the only national organization to speak out in defense of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the rights of conscientious objectors, and the due process rights of radical labor leaders. The Bureau was led by Roger Baldwin, who went on to found the ACLU in January, 1920 along with Crystal Eastman, Arthur Garfield Hayes, and others.

Baldwin's cause was helped by the support of prominent lawyers such as future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who raised concerns that the abuses 'struck at the foundation of American free institutions, and brought the name of our country into disrepute.' Frankfurter's words resonated with Americans, and public opinion, which had initially been strongly in favor of the raids, soon changed.

Major ACLU Supreme Court Cases (By Decade)

  • Gitlow v. New York (1925)
    Despite the conviction of radical activist Benjamin Gitlow under New York's criminal anarchy law, this first landmark Supreme Court case for the ACLU, established that the 14th Amendment "incorporates" the First Amendment's Free Speech clause and therefore applies to the states.

  • Whitney v. California (1927)
    Although the defendant's conviction was upheld, the foundation for modern First Amendment law was created with Justice Brandeis' separate argument that under a "clear and present danger test," a strong presumption should favor, "more speech, not enforced silence."


  • Powell v. Alabama (1932)
    This appeal on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys

  • Patterson v. Alabama (1935)
    A second "Scottsboro Boys" decision held that excluding African-Americans from the jury list denied defendants a fair trial.


  • Hirabayashi v. United States (1943) and Korematsu v. United States (1944)
    Led by Affiliates in California and Washington, the ACLU sponsored these two courageous challenges to the federal government's evacuation and internment of the Japanese Americans in WWII. Although the cases were unsuccessful, the ACLU stood up for the principle of challenging unlimited government power and set an important precedent for future wartime crises.


  • Rochin v. California (1952)
    Reversing the conviction of a man whose stomach had been forcibly pumped for drugs by police, the Court ruled that "conduct that shocks the conscience," violates the 14th amendment.


  • Miranda v. Arizona (1966)
    The Court held that a suspect in police custody has a Sixth Amendment right to counsel and a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and established the "Miranda warning" requirement that police inform suspects of their rights before interrogating them.

  • In re: Gault (1967)
    Established the right of due process for juveniles tried for crimes in delinquency proceedings.

  • Loving v. Virginia (1967)
    Virginia's anti-miscegenation statute declared unconstitutional, thereby ending all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States.

  • Brandenburg v. Ohio ( 1969)
    The ACLU achieved victory in its 50-year struggle against laws punishing political advocacy when the Court agreed that the government could only penalize direct incitement to imminent lawless action.


  • Reed v. Reed (1971)
    The first equal protection case to prohibit discrimination based on sex.

  • O'Connor v. Donaldson (1975)
    In the case of a patient held against his will in a mental institution, the Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to involuntarily confine a non-dangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom with the help of family and friends.


  • Wallace v. Jaffree (1985)
    The Court held that Alabama's "moment of silence" law which required public school children to take a moment for mediation or voluntary prayer, violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

  • Edwards v. Aguillard (1987)
    Fifty years after Scopes, the ACLU was successful in challenging a Louisiana law that required the teaching of creationism in public schools along with evolution. The Court deemed the law unconstitutional because it was specifically intended to advance a particular religion.


  • Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992)
    Although the Court upheld parts of Pennsylvania's restrictive abortion law, it also reaffirmed the central holding of Roe v. Wade, that abortions performed prior to viability cannot be prohibited by states.

  • Romer v. Evans (1996)
    In this first gay rights victory, the Court invalidated a state constitutional amendment, passed by public referendum in Colorado, that prohibited the state and its municipalities from enacting gay rights laws.

  • Reno v. ACLU (1997)
    The Court struck down the Communications Decency Act, an attempt by Congress to censor "indecent speech" on the internet, ruling that an "interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship."


  • INS v. St. Cyr (2001)
    Right to habeas corpus relief in deportation proceedings affirmed by the Court.

  • Safford Unified School District v. Redding (2009)
    The Court held that a strip search of a middle school student violated her Fourth Amendment rights because the school lacked sufficient evidence to suspect the presence of illegal narcotics.

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