The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a nearly 100-year-old left-leaning activism organization focused on issues related to civil liberties, including free speech and due process for accused defendants. During its history, the ACLU has aligned with the ideological Left, becoming a “hub of liberal activism” which declared its intent to spend $25 million attacking Republican candidates during the 2018 election cycle.
Labor union activist Roger Baldwin and a group of like-minded activist colleagues founded the ACLU in 1920. The ACLU advocated for special government protections specifically for left-leaning demographic and special interest groups such as immigrants, labor unions, LGBT people, the poor, prisoners, and the severely mentally ill.
The ACLU’s main tool is courtroom activism, whereby the organization brings or supports a lawsuit in the hope that a court will find a legal justification for enshrining the ACLU’s position. One-historian estimates that the ACLU has participated in 80 percent of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most controversial cases since 1925. While the ACLU argues that it has a non-partisan affiliation, the ACLU is a decidedly left-of-center organization with liberal values.
Since its inception, the ACLU has fought for judicial mandates favoring labor unions; advocated for expanded rights of accused defendants; challenged aggressive policing measures; defended the pedophilia advocacy group North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA); defended the free expression rights of numerous controversial organizations including the Ku Klux Klan, the Nation of Islam, and the National Socialist Party of America; and defended terrorists including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, mastermind of the attacks of September 11, 2001, while seeking to end national security surveillance programs.
In recent years, the ACLU’s priorities have largely taken left-of-center positions on hot-button political topics. The organization seeks to eliminate the death penalty and has defended death row inmates. The ACLU advocates for increased government spending as repayment for slavery and segregation. The ACLU also seeks to expand rights for illegal immigrants and seeks to make enforcement of immigration laws and border protections more difficult.
In 2017, assumed a leadership role in the opposition to the Trump administration and touts that in 2017 it launched over 110 different legal actions to prevent Republican-backed policies from taking effect. Specifically the group has sued to overturn the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban, to support federal funding for “sanctuary cities” which do not enforce federal immigration laws, and to overturn a Trump order barring transgender people from military service.
Since it took a more partisan approach after the election of President Donald Trump, the ACLU has been criticized by civil libertarians for subjugating its stated civil libertarian principles to the needs of left-of-center activism.
ACLU Foundation is the 501(c)(3) nonprofit affiliate of the ACLU.
In 1920, a small group of left-leaning activists led by labor activist Roger Baldwin, Crystal Eastman, and Albert DeSilver re-organized and expanded the defunct National Civil Liberties Bureau under the name American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU was to carry out militant “direct actions” to defend against violations of civil liberties.
The original national committee of the ACLU was “deliberately” filled with labor union leaders and pro-First World War liberals including chairman Harry Ward of the Union Theological Seminary, William Z. Foster from the American Federation of Labor (AFL), Felix Frankfurter,  Jane Addams, Helen Keller, Arthur Garfield Hayes, and Norman Thomas.
The ACLU’s “work is coordinated by a national office in New York, aided by a legislative office in Washington that lobbies Congress.” The organization claims to have more than 1 million members and organizes a nationwide network of affiliate chapters in every state and more than 300 chapters in smaller towns and cities. These affiliate organizations carry out local advocacy campaigns, local litigation-activism, and local lobbying efforts. 
The ACLU’s national office operates as two related entities, the ACLU itself, a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit, and the related ACLU Foundation, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) organization. Both entities pursue litigation, issue communications and carry out left-leaning public advocacy and awareness programs; however, the ACLU finances most of the organization’s lobbying at the local, state, and federal levels in support of its preferred policies.
During the 1960s and 1970s, conservatives accused the ACLU of using liberal judges to push a left-wing political agenda. Critics pointed to the ACLU’s positions in favor of abortion, against the Vietnam War, and its support for Richard Nixon’s impeachment as evidence of its leftward political shift.
Historian Samuel Walker wrote that the ACLU’s “greatest impact on American life” was its role in convincing the Supreme Court to “constitutionalize” countless controversial policies.  Similarly, one historian estimates that the ACLU has participated in 80 percent of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most controversial cases since 1925.
In The Politics of the American Civil Liberties Union, Dr. William A. Donohue writes, “quite simply, the ACLU has a politics, and that politics is liberalism” and “the voice of the ACLU has been the voice of liberalism.” Donohue concludes that every action the ACLU has taken from it lobbying efforts to its policy decisions reflect value priorities, that are “the quintessential embodiment of American liberalism.”
Defense of Communists
The ACLU denies the allegation that it was a Communist front group; however, the ACLU did often defend individuals accused of being Communists and was heavily criticized as a potential “front” for Communism during Cold War-era investigations of Soviet influence. 
In 1931, the U.S. Supreme Court, siding with the ACLU, ruled that a Communist Party member had the constitutional right to salute a communist flag.
In 1943 a report of the California Senate Fact-Finding Subcommittee on Un-American Activities stated:
The American Civil Liberties Union may be definitely classed as a Communist front or ‘transmission belt’ organization. At least 90% of its efforts are expended on behalf of Communists who come into conflict with the law.
Since its inception the ACLU has fought to organize labor unions, beginning with efforts to promote unions in the 1920s. In 1932, the ACLU played a major role in passing the Norris-LaGuardia Act, a federal law that forced employers to allow their employees to join labor unions and prevented employers from outlawing strikes and other union organizing activities. Similarly, in 1939, the ACLU fought and won a lawsuit at the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed labor unions the ability to organize.
Defense of Extremist Groups
The ACLU has defended a number of extremist groups and individuals, including the Ku Klux Klan, the Nation of Islam, and the National Socialist Party of America. In one of the group’s most famous cases, the ACLU defended the right of the American Nazi Party to march through Skokie, Illinois, a mostly Jewish suburb of Chicago, in 1977.
The ACLU has a long history of supporting an expanded interpretation of rights for accused defendants and lighter sentencing laws for convicts. Throughout the 1960’s the ACLU successfully supported or argued a number a number of U.S. Supreme Court cases that made it harder for the police to gather evidence during criminal investigations, and was criticized for expanding the rights of criminals.  In 1963 the ACLU supported a case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the poor had a constitutionally guaranteed right to legal counsel.
In 1988 then-Vice President George H.W. Bush said, “I have never been a member (of the ACLU) because they’re always coming down on the side of criminals.” Similarly, at around the same time Edwin Meese a counselor to President Ronald Reagan labeled the ACLU as the “criminals’ lobby.”
The ACLU argues that possession of child pornography should not be illegaland has argued in favor of “virtual child pornography” In 2000, the ACLU defended the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), a group that supports pedophilia, against a civil suit filed by the family of a Massachusetts victim of molestation.
Church and State
The ACLU defended John Scopes in a case that sought to overturn a requirement that human evolution not be taught in public schools. Since then, the ACLU has often fought against religion in public institutions.
In 1947, the ACLU led the legal challenge that persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to declare religious teaching in state governed schools unconstitutional.  In the 1980s, the ACLU supported the elimination of tax exemptions for churches, including the Roman Catholic Church.   More recently, the ACLU complained when Attorney General Jeff Sessions proposed ways for federal agencies to accommodate religious observance and practice.
The ACLU has supported the right of schoolchildren not to salute the American flag when it violates their religious beliefs.
The ACLU has frequently opposed national security policies. In 2002, the ACLU fought to reinstate a set of multi-layer bureaucratic guidelines barring FBI intelligence gathering known colloquially as “the wall.” Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, this “wall” had prevented FBI agents from fully investigating the terrorists involved in planning the 9/11 attacks, and was removed by the administration of George W. Bush.
The ACLU also filed suit seeking to President George W. Bush’s surveillance program, which allowed for eavesdropping on international phone calls and e-mails of people deemed a terror risk.
In 2010, the ACLU sued to “prevent the U.S. military and CIA from undertaking the “targeted killing” of persons suspected of posing a terrorist threat to the U.S.”
The ACLU has defended a number of accused terrorists, their domestic abettors, and their financiers. The ACLU pushed for a civilian trial and then defended confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and five of his alleged 9/11 co-conspirators. The ACLU defended Lynne Stewart, who was convicted in 2005 after being videotaped helping the “blind sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman communicate from prison with his Egyptian terrorist comrades. The ACLU the ACLU defended an Islamist “charity,” Kind Hearts for Charitable Humanitarian Development, which was shut down in 2006 by the US Treasury Department for funneling money to the Palestinian foreign terrorist organization Hamas.
Numerous organizations have declared the ACLU the leader of the liberal opposition to the Republican-led federal government and the organization has spent millions of dollars in political expenditures against right-wing policies.    The organization’s shift toward electoral organizing and advocacy and away from purist civil libertarianism has been criticized by supporters of free speech and procedural safeguards for defendants.
Crime and the Death Penalty
The ACLU “believes that, in all circumstances, the death penalty is unconstitutional” and that “no one deserves to die” including murderers.  The ACLU also supports other easing of non-capital sentences. In 2015, an ACLU representative called President Barack Obama’s decision to free more than 6,000 federal inmates “nothing short of thrilling.” The ACLU has similarly opposed the use of civil forfeiture to punish criminals, and has sought to take military-style weapons away from police. The ACLU joined with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in labeling fatal police shootings a “national crisis” and calling for federal legislative reforms.
The ACLU argues that due to inadequate federal programs and spending along with tough on crime police policies, black and indigenous people have not overcome the impacts of slavery and land revocation that took place hundreds of years ago. The ACLU thus brings lawsuit, lobbies, and advocates for policies that favor these specific communities based on their racial classification based on perceived “institutional” concerns.
The ACLU seeks to expand the rights of illegal immigrants and brings lawsuits meant to make enforcement of immigration laws and border protections more difficult. The ACLU opposes the collection of citizenship information on the 2020 Census, has defended “sanctuary city” leaders from criminal prosecution, has brought numerous lawsuits arguing against the deportation of illegal immigrants and has supported government-funded benefits for immigrants. The ACLU filed 13 different lawsuits seeking to block President Trump’s proposed bans on travel from a number of majority-Muslim states, later amended to hostile countries such as Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela.
Gay and Transgender Issues
The ACLU has fostered an expansion in mandates on religious institutions concerning LGBT individuals. A main focus of the ACLU in 2018 is on ensuring that religious institutions and individuals are forced to provide services to LGBT individuals even if it contradicts their religious beliefs. The ACLU also opposed a Trump administration ban on transgender individuals serving in the military,
The ACLU touts that “abortion is one of the most common medical procedures performed today,” and argues that the procedure is “incredibly safe.” As such the ACLU uses its various tools to try and block efforts to restrict the availability and government funding of abortions.
In 2018, bolstered by its newfound liberal resistance leadership role, the ACLU planned to digress from its ostensibly nonpartisan stance and become a “hub of liberal political activism.”
During the 2018 election cycle, the ACLU expressed plans to spend over $25 million attacking Republicans based on their conservative policy positions. Specifically, the ACLU planned to attack Republicans for ensuring only citizens are able vote, for supporting travel restrictions, for opposing abortion, and for opposing unfettered illegal immigration. In total the ACLU planned to get involved in about a dozen state and federal races across the country.
In Florida, the ACLU planned to spend $5 million on a ballot initiative that would allow an estimated 1.5 million convicted felons the right to vote. According to the ACLU’s executive director, the proposal if successful would alter the state’s political balance in favor of left-wing interests.
The ACLU is funded by small-dollar membership contributions. The ACLU substantially expanded its claimed membership and financial coffers in 2017. The group claimed that its membership quadrupled from 400,000 members in 2016 to 1.6 million members in 2017. It also claims that it raised more than $83 million from member donations during that time period.
The ACLU has taken money from a number of left-leaning organizations including George Soros’ Open Society Institute, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Lear Family Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, the Sandler Family Supporting Foundation, and the Tides Foundation.
In 2017, the ACLU spent $107 million on programming including $32.2 million on left-of-center litigation, $60 million supporting its local affiliates’ activities, $11.9 million on public awareness campaigns, and $1.4 million on lobbying.
The ACLU Foundation complemented the ACLU’s spending with $109 million in similar program spending.
Susan Herman is the ACLU’s current president. Herman was elected ACLU president in 2008. Previously she served on the ACLU’s National Board of Directors.
Anthony D. Romero is the long-time ACLU executive director. Romero took over at the ACLU on September 4, 2001 and quickly launched the Keep America Safe and Free campaign, which sought to restrict national security counterterrorism programs.
David Cole is the ACLU’s legal director.
Faiz Shakir is the ACLU’s political director. Prior to joining the ACLU, Shakir worked as a senior adviser to former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada).