Today, the ACLU comprises two different organizations. Collectively these groups go under the name ACLU, but each branch undertakes different tasks in defense of civil liberties. The American Civil Liberties Union focuses primarily on political lobbying. When someone "joins" the ACLU and gets a membership card, they are joining this branch of the organization. Laws restrict lobbying groups from accepting tax-deductible donations, so membership dues are not tax deductible. The ACLU Foundation works through litigation and communication efforts. Donations made to the ACLU Foundation are tax deductible.
The ACLU national headquarters is in New York City, NY, but each state has its own chapter. Each chapter operates autonomously, although some smaller chapters receive funding from the national chapter. On certain major cases, the national chapter gets directly involved. The national organization formulates ACLU policies and positions, but the chapters are not required to adhere to them. In many cases, the national organization and its chapters have disagreed over the proper course of action.
Each chapter is largely responsible for its own funding. While funding sources and amounts vary from chapter to chapter, roughly half comes from donations. Remaining funding consists of grants from other organizations, ACLU investments, and attorney fees, which are awarded when the ACLU wins a case. This last funding source has caused some controversy.
Within each chapter, members participate by donating funds, volunteering at events and disseminating information via e-mail and action committees. Cooperating attorneys are some of the most important volunteers for the ACLU. They provide their services for cases pro bono (free of charge). Sometimes, cooperating attorneys directly represent defendants in ACLU cases. In other situations, they file amicus curiae, or "friend of the court," briefs with courts that are currently trying a case of interest to the ACLU. Attorneys file these briefs when the decision in the case would affect parties beyond those directly involved. The intention is to provide information to the court that might help it render the appropriate decision in the case. Cooperating attorneys also help the ACLU analyze new legislation that could affect civil liberties, file complaints or comments with regulatory agencies, and participate in public information programs. The ACLU also has several paid attorneys who work for the organization full-time.
Next, we'll discuss ACLU attorneys' fees and other reasons people are opposed to the ACLU.