How the ACLU Works

The ACLU and the Constitution

The ACLU defended one group's right to pledge to the red flag and another's right not to pledge to the U.S. flag.
The ACLU defended one group's right to pledge to the red flag and another's right not to pledge to the U.S. flag.
Photo courtesy Kenn Kiser, MorgueFile

A very small number of court cases actually end up before the Supreme Court. Many of the ACLU's victories came in lower courts, but these cases still led to a gradual increase in the legal standing of civil liberties. Those cases that did come before the Supreme Court are among the most famous, and important, in U.S. history.

The ACLU began to see real gains in the area of civil liberties in the 1930s. In earlier cases, the Supreme Court seemed to disdain freedom of speech. In the case of Gitlow vs. New York, the Court upheld a conviction for publishing a socialist newsletter on the grounds that entire classes of speech could be outlawed if they had a "dangerous tendency," even if the speech itself did not lead to violence [ref]. In 1931, the Court ruled Stromberg v. The People of the State of California in favor of Yetta Stromberg, a young woman who ran a Communist children's camp that displayed a red flag. She was defended by ACLU attorneys. A California law had made such a flag illegal [ref].

The Supreme Court decided a major case, West Virginia State Board Of Education v. Barnette, in 1943. In this case, a school board expelled 2,000 students who were Jehovah's Witnesses for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Their religious beliefs forbade them from worshipping images, including the flag. With the ACLU at their defense, the Jehovah's Witnesses won the case. The Supreme Court declared that no official could force anyone to declare his or her belief in any religion or nation [ref].

In the 1944 case of Smith v. Allwright, the ACLU argued that a Democratic Party's "white primary" was illegal because it denied blacks a chance to participate in the democratic process. Previously, courts had declared political parties to be private organizations that were not subject to anti-discrimination laws. However, the Supreme Court declared that participation in a political primary was too crucial to the running of a democracy and the civic participation of citizens to allow certain classes to be excluded [ref]. This ruling also strengthened the federal government's power over state governments.

The Courtroom of the Supreme Court Building The Courtroom of the Supreme Court Building
The Courtroom of the Supreme Court Building
Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

A 1952 case, Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, had lasting repercussions in the American film industry and was a landmark case in overturning government censorship. New York's State Board of Regents blocked theaters from showing the film "The Miracle" because Catholic officials called it sacrilegious. City officials threatened theaters with revocation of their licenses if they showed it. In some cases, they simply banned the film outright. Justice Tom Clark stated, "The state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them. It is not the business of our government to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures." [ref].

Engel vs. Vitale, 1962, was one of several cases to establish that prayer and Bible readings couldn't be conducted in public schools by school officials, even if they were voluntary [ref].

Recent ACLU efforts overturned the Communications Decency Act of 1996 because elements of the act limited indecent speech, which is protected by the First Amendment. The ACLU has also led the fight against the USA Patriot Act and other civil liberty restrictions enacted in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Another primary focus has been surveillance of American citizens by the National Security Agency (NSA), which the ACLU considers illegal.

Next, we'll learn about some of the ACLU's most controversial cases.