Dedicated to protecting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union has been an influential player in the U.S. legal arena since it was founded in 1920. Although many people might associate the ACLU with leftwing politics and beliefs, the group prides itself on its non-profit and non-partisan status (it has never endorsed a presidential candidate) and has represented parties and interests that span the political spectrum.
The ACLU is known for its participation in First Amendment cases. Famous examples include its success at getting a ban on James Joyce's Ulysses
lifted in 1933 and halting Congress' attempt to pass the Communications Decency Act, which sought to ban "indecent" speech on the Internet, in 1997. More controversial examples include its fight in 1977 against Illinois ordinances that outlawed Nazi demonstrations (the ACLU lost substantial Jewish membership that year) and its work over the years to stop legislation that would outlaw burning the American flag.
The ACLU has also advocated widely for underrepresented communities and played a large role in civil rights movements for minorities and women. In 1942, the ACLU voiced its opposition to the U.S. government's treatment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. The ACLU also pushed for the elimination of racial segregation in schools and participated in the landmark 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education
The ACLU is actually composed of two separate organizations: the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. Both share a commitment to protecting constitutional rights, but differ on how they go about doing it. The American Civil Liberties Union
engages heavily in legislative lobbying and, therefore, is not eligible to receive tax-deductible donations. Instead, membership dues go to that group while donations are directed to the ACLU Foundation, which handles most of the litigation work.
Two prized positions for lawyers in the ACLU organization are the executive director and the legal director. The current executive director, Anthony Romero, assumed command a week before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He has led the ACLU through an age ripe with new challenges for the Constitution and Bill of Rights. He has overseen rapid membership growth, possibly stemming from the ACLU's outspokenness on the importance of balancing national security and privacy rights. The current legal director is Steven Shapiro
, an adjunct professor of constitutional law at Columbia University.
Aside from senior leadership roles, lawyers fit into the ACLU in numerous ways. Sixty full-time lawyers manage the ACLU's heavy docket of nearly 6,000 cases per year. They also coordinate and supervise the assistance of thousands of volunteer attorneys across the nation. In addition, several different types of paid legal fellowships are available in areas ranging from racial justice and human rights to national security and drug law policy. Legal fellows engage in legal research, draft briefs and pleadings for trial, and participate in litigation. Lawyers are also welcome to apply for positions in legislative affairs and operations.
Undoubtedly, one might find a better paying job in private practice
. However, the ACLU boasts 400,000 members for a reason: people believe in its mission. Technological innovations and international terrorist threats have changed the social landscape of America. These types of changes, both positive and negative, add new complexities to the meaning and interpretation of the Constitution and make advocates such as the ACLU increasingly important.