ACLU of Northern California Celebrates 75th Anniversary

September 21, 2009 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO – On September 21, 1934, 75 years ago today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC) was founded by local civic leaders. The genesis of the ACLU-NC was the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, when lawyers and organizers were called upon to protect Bay Area maritime workers against vicious attacks by police and two trade unionists were shot and killed. In the decades that followed, from the Depression Era through World War II, McCarthyism, the Free Speech, Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements, the AIDS crisis, and the aftermath of 9-11, the ACLU-NC has defended the fundamental rights and freedoms of all northern Californians. The ACLU-NC has grown to be the largest ACLU affiliate in the country.

“The ACLU of Northern California has played a defining role in protecting and expanding the rights that belong to all of us,” said ACLU-NC Executive Director Abdi Soltani. “Times change, but the principles stay the same. Each of us has a responsibility to protect our rights – and the rights of others.”

In recent decades, the ACLU-NC has continued its focus on freedom of speech and ending abuses of government power, and specializes in advocating for the rights of immigrants, LGBT people and their families, and youth; promoting racial justice in schools, society and the criminal justice system; and protecting reproductive rights and privacy rights, including in the emerging arena of digital privacy. In addition to litigation, the organization places significant emphasis on community organizing, public education, advocacy, and legislation.

The ACLU of Northern California’s ability to be both an advocate and an ardent watchdog is dependent upon the engagement of its more than 50,000 members in cities from Eureka to Fresno to San Jose, Salinas and beyond. Activists are organized into 18 local chapters throughout the region, and five clubs on university campuses.

A Few Highlights

· One of the proudest episodes of ACLU-NC history was its almost solitary challenge to the relocation and forced detention of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII. The ACLU-NC took the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that the exclusion and detention laws violated basic constitutional rights.

· In 1957, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was put on trial for selling copies of poet Allen Ginsberg’s Howl at his three-year-old bookstore, City Lights. The ACLU-NC successfully defended Ferlinghetti against charges of “obscenity.”

· In 1972, the ACLU-NC helped to author and pass a privacy amendment to the California Constitution. This innovative measure became the legal underpinning of a wide and varied range of litigation: from protecting individual financial records and membership rolls of political parties to landmark victories guaranteeing the right to reproductive choice.

Additional Background

1930s: One of the ACLU-NC’s first actions was to sue San Francisco and Oakland after trade unionists and anti-Franco demonstrators were charged with violating anti-picketing laws. The ACLU-NC filed lawsuits against several local ordinances; the United States Supreme Court eventually struck down anti-picketing laws as unconstitutional in 1940.

1940s: In addition to opposing Japanese American internment during WWII,the ACLU-NC mobilized support for African American sailors at Port Chicago (Suisun Bay) who refused to load munitions ships after an explosion killed 300 and injured hundreds more. Though the sailors were court-martialed and imprisoned, their action eventually led to the desegregation of the Navy. Thurgood Marshall defended the sailors for the NAACP. The ACLU publicized the trial and mobilized political and community support for the sailors.

1950s: During the political witch-hunts of the McCarthy era, the ACLU-NC came to the defense of hundreds of victims of federal and state “loyalty and security” programs. Against all odds in the Red Scare climate, the ACLU-NC won court decisions striking down a wide variety of loyalty oaths–from those required of recipients of unemployment benefits, to the Levering Act, which exacted oaths from all public officials and state employees in California, including teachers. The ACLU-NC also defended Eastern European and Chinese immigrants who faced deportation for their political views, as well as U.S. citizens who were denied passports because they were deemed “security risks,” among them poet Gary Snyder.

1960s: In 1964, the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley set off campus demonstrations around the state and country. The ACLU went toe to toe with university officials to protect academic freedom and the rights of students. The ACLU-NC aided the growing civil rights movement by providing legal counsel for campaigns by African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans. We fought to protect their rights to assemble, use public facilities and speak out about against racism. As the lesbian and gay rights movement came out of the closet, the affiliate provided attorneys to protect their meeting places from police raids and publications from obscenity charges and to respond to persecution by the police. An early advocate of reproductive freedom, the ACLU-NC successfully challenged anti-abortion laws in the state, making abortion legal (1969) even before Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court.

1970s: In 1972, the ACLU-NC helped to author and pass a privacy amendment to the California Constitution, another of its proudest accomplishments. During this era, the organization also established a Police Practices Project to monitor, expose and challenge police abuse. The Project has tackled everything from political spying on demonstrators to police round-ups of homeless people. In support of the burgeoning women’s movement, the ACLU-NC took cases on hiring, employment conditions, benefits and residency requirements to ensure equal rights for women. And the organization participated in the lawsuit that ended the death penalty in California, a major victory that was to reverberate nationally and last a quarter century.

1980s: In 1981, the ACLU-NC won a landmark victory in the California Supreme Court when Justice Matthew Tobriner, relying on the privacy amendment in the state constitution, wrote: “Once the state furnishes medical care to poor women in general, it cannot withdraw part of that care solely because a woman exercised her constitutional right to have an abortion.”

1990s: During an upsurge in right-wing ballot initiatives on race, immigration, criminal justice, and gay rights, Proposition 187, spurred by then-Governor Pete Wilson as a launch pad for a presidential bid, would have cut off education, health care and all government services to undocumented immigrants. The ACLU helped defeat the measure in court.

2000s: Following the horrific attacks of 9-11, the ACLU lead the charge to challenge the government’s response: round-ups and detention of thousands of Muslim, South Asian and Middle Eastern men; deportations without hearings; unblinking passage of the Patriot Act; special registration and profiling at airports – catapulted the ACLU, nationally and locally, into an unprecedented level of activity to defend basic constitutional rights. The ACLU believes that America can be both safe and free.

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The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.