The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is one of the most well-known civil rights organizations in America. It was founded in 1920 to ensure the promises of the Bill of Rights extended to all citizens, especially those who were historically denied its protections.

The ACLU has defended all manner of groups, from the loved to the loathed, in their pursuit of this mission to enforce the Bill of Rights. The group fights especially for the freedoms of speech and assembly, for all citizens no matter what they say or why they gather together. This has sometimes led to confusion about how the ACLU helps people. That’s what we’re going to look at today.

What do they really do?

 There are three main activities that the ACLU performs:

  • Educating the public about civil liberties and their violations
  • Representing people who have had their civil liberties violated in state and federal courts
  • Lobby for legislation that preserves civil rights and reverses violations

People who have had their rights violated are urged to contact their state’s ACLU affiliate office and state their situation. All 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico have an ACLU affiliate office.

If a case is accepted, the ACLU has lawyers who will give pro bono (free) work. They can also file amicus curiae briefs to inform the court that they are watching the situation and how the court’s decision could affect other people down the road. This work is funded by donations from ACLU members, other organizations, and occasionally by taking a cut of financial awards given by the courts to the affected party.

What cases do they take?

Claimants should know that the ACLU only accepts very particular kinds of cases, and due to their nature as a non-profit organization they cannot take all cases offered to them. As each state’s chapter is fairly independent, your state’s may or may not cover certain kinds of violations.

However, that doesn’t mean that filing a report of a violation is a waste of time. Some chapters can give referrals to other lawyers who can help. It also provides a record of incidents that the ACLU can use to guide further actions. Just know that not all cases are accepted. To maximize your chances, provide as much detail as possible and make sure that your situation falls under a civil rights violation claim, especially violations involving:

  • speech
  • due process
  • equal protection
  • religious freedom
  • freedom of assembly
  • unreasonable search and seizure
  • cruel and unusual punishment

Or anything else covered by the Bill of Rights. This PDF from the ACLU chapter in San Diego has a good breakdown on ACLU case acceptance policy, but you should read the website of the affiliate group closest to you for further details.

The ACLU has strong purveyor of civil liberty protection and continues the fight to preserve the Bill of Rights for all Americans. Over 1.75 million people belong to the organization and contribute to its efforts. If civil rights protection is a topic close to you, consider becoming a member and help to preserve all of our liberties.