Through the courts, the legislature and in the community, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has defended the rights guaranteed in the United States Constitution for nearly 100 years.
The ACLU was born during a time of social unrest in which violent police crackdowns on political protesters, labor leaders, anti-war activists and other critics of those in power were a common occurrence. Since its founding in 1920, the ACLU has been fighting to preserve and expand the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
Three years later, labor literally brought the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) into existence with the help of radical author Upton Sinclair.
In 1923, the Los Angeles Police Department banned striking San Pedro longshoremen from holding public meetings. At a rally protesting the ban, Sinclair and five friends marched up "Liberty Hill" and tried to read aloud the First Amendment in support of the workers' rights to free speech and assembly. They continued even after the police chief warned them to "cut out that Constitution stuff," only to be arrested and charged with criminal syndicalism, or agitating to overthrow the government.
Even in the best of times, defending the right to free expression is a difficult undertaking, but in those days it took enormous courage. As Sinclair wrote to the police chief upon his release:
"All I can say, sir, is that I intend to do what little one man can do to awake the public conscience, and that meantime I am not frightened by your menaces. I am not a giant physically . . . I freely admit that when I see a line of a hundred policemen with drawn revolvers flung across a street to keep anyone from coming onto private property to hear my feeble voice, I am somewhat disturbed in my nerves. But I have a conscience and a religious faith, and I know that our liberties were not won without suffering, and may be lost again through our cowardice. I intend to do my duty to my country."
In the wake of the San Pedro strike, Sinclair, already a member of the newly-founded national ACLU in New York, helped to form the first ACLU affiliate in Los Angeles.
Due in large part to Sinclair's influence, the ACLU SoCal took an early and radical stand against worker exploitation. This no doubt inspired the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI) to spy intensely on the ACLU SoCal and work to obtain its membership list.
Throughout the twenties and thirties, the ACLU SoCal continued to defend the right of workers to strike — indeed to organize at all, since California's Criminal Syndicalism Act in effect criminalized union membership. It was also widely used to crack down on the political speech of socialists, communists and civil rights advocates.
In 1931, the ACLU SoCal hired its first — and the nation's first — civil rights attorney, Al Wirin, who carried the fight to protect political speech into the courts. In 1934, Wirin drove out to the Imperial Valley armed with injunctions to prevent growers and businessmen from breaking up the meetings of Mexican farm workers. Called away from his dinner in a Brawley hotel by a mysterious page, he was seized by a vigilante mob and with the aid of police, taken out into the desert, savagely beaten, threatened with murder, robbed of everything he was carrying and his shoes, and then turned loose.
Undeterred, he responded by suing the governor, the head of the highway patrol, the captain of the Red Squad of the LAPD, the police chief of Brawley, and 25 John Doe vigilantes. At a time when union organizers hid by day to be free to organize at night, and police routinely produced confessions with rolled telephone books that left no bruises, the ACLU SoCal continued to fight the Criminal Syndicalism Act. It took almost fifty years to have it declared unconstitutional, but the ACLU SoCal persisted and finally prevailed in 1971.
The forties saw new assaults on civil liberties in California, brought on by America's entrance into World War II. History has shown that the rights of minorities are always most threatened in time of war, when the majority itself becomes fearful. This was true of World War I, which saw the birth of criminal syndicalism legislation, and it was equally true of the Second World War, when over a hundred thousand Japanese Americans were interned in concentration camps.
Throughout the forties, the ACLU SoCal went to court again and again to fight government persecution of Japanese Americans. It lost when the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the Japanese curfew and evacuation orders, but won when the ACLU defeated efforts to strip Japanese Americans of their US citizenship. The ACLU got the courts to recognize the right of Japanese Americans to hold civil service jobs, and finally, in 1949, to rule that Japanese Americans who renounced their citizenship at the Tule Lake Relocation Center had done so under duress and were therefore still US citizens.
But the wartime climate of fear and repression did not dissipate with the end of the war — if anything, it worsened as we entered the McCarthy era. Even the National ACLU began to falter in its dedication to free speech — uncertain whether Communist speech merited Constitutional protection. The ACLU SoCal stayed true to its radical roots, however, and took strong exception to the National ACLU's position endorsing federal loyalty oaths.
The ACLU SoCal represented professors drummed out of the classroom for refusing to sign loyalty oaths — including its soon-to-be director, Eason Monroe — and appeared in court on behalf of the accused in untold loyalty oath cases. The ACLU SoCal fought for the rights of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and producers called before the House Un-American Activities Committee for suspected Communist activity. The fruits of these labors came in the sixties, when the California Supreme Court struck down the loyalty oath enacted into the state constitution during McCarthy's reign.
The ACLU SoCal's history of advocating for the rights of racial and ethnic minorities in California is as long as the history of the affiliate, and its motto, first espoused in 1926, has always been that "a threat to any minority is a threat to all minorities." In 1945, the ACLU SoCal successfully litigated against schools segregating Mexican-American children in Orange County.
Throughout the forties and fifties, the ACLU SoCal filed a massive number of cases seeking to strike down the vicious racially-restrictive covenants, which had been imposed on residential property after the Second World War. In the course of its history, the ACLU SoCal has occasionally been required to defend the expression of views it condemns.
In 1945, for instance, Wirin successfully defended the right of a renowned anti-Semite to speak at a public meeting in Los Angeles. The night of the speech, he was first in line to picket the event. Wirin explained to a reporter that "the rights of all persons are wrapped in the same constitutional bundle as those of the most hated members of society."
As the turbulent sixties got underway, the ACLU SoCal heartily endorsed the across-the-board demand for civil rights. In 1963, the ACLU SoCal entered the long and difficult battle to desegregate Los Angeles schools. After the Watts Riot, the ACLU SoCal enlisted a vast cadre of volunteer attorneys to ensure that every person arrested — almost 4,000 — was represented by counsel. It did the same after the mass arrests of student demonstrators at California State Northridge and of antiwar demonstrators at the Century Plaza.
The ACLU SoCal fought the efforts of punitive draft boards to reclassify registers who exercised their rights of free speech to protest the war, and convinced the courts that it was a lawless exercise of power. It raised the issue of the very constitutionality of the draft and the war itself.
In the seventies, the ACLU SoCal continued to fight against government surveillance and secrecy and the suppression of lawful political dissent, and was one of the first organizations in the country to call for Nixon's impeachment. The ACLU SoCal extended its advocacy of civil rights to reproductive rights, convincing the Supreme Court of California — the first court in the land — to strike down a statute preventing a woman, with the advice of her doctor, from having an abortion.
The ACLU SoCal fought for women's rights, and continued to fight for the rights of ethnic and racial minorities to live free from discrimination. The ACLU SoCal fought against the Briggs amendment criminalizing homosexuality, for trial rights and voting rights and for the rights of Native Americans to practice freedom of religion.
In the 1980s, even as it sought to extend the protections of the law still further, the ACLU SoCal was already witnessing the beginning of a rollback of civil rights and civil liberties. Women's reproductive rights were under severe attack and the emerging AIDS and drug crises were met with restrictions of Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure, and new assaults on the broader principles of privacy and equal protection.
But the ACLU SoCal fought back, persuading a federal judge to rule that the San Luis Obispo school district could not keep five-year-old Ryan Thomas out of school because he had AIDS. Responding to a dire homelessness crisis, the ACLU SoCal successfully challenged the practice of denying shelter to people who lacked "proper identification," and forced L.A. County to modify its "sixty-day rule," which allowed it to suspend all general relief for two months for minor eligibility-rule infractions.
In 1983, the ACLU SoCal affirmed the affiliate's longstanding commitment to economic rights by drafting an "Economic Bill of Rights" declaring that "every person in the United States who desires to work and is capable of working should be assured of a basic standard of living."
In the 1990s, the ACLU SoCal fought to prevent further cutbacks in the areas of affirmative action and immigrant rights. It sought to stem the tide of censorship of music lyrics, of television, of the Internet. And it continued its longstanding commitment to economic justice, successfully challenging key provisions of the so-called Welfare Reform Act of 1996.
Since 2001, the ACLU SoCal has continued to challenge mounting threats to civil liberties, and has worked to expand opportunities to all.
In 2004, the ACLU SoCal held the state accountable for ensuring equal educational opportunities to all students. The landmark settlement in Williams v. California set standards for access to books, qualified teachers and safe, clean and needed facilities, and requires oversight and creates a complaint mechanism to hold districts responsible for meeting these fundamental standards.