The American Civil Liberties Union, a national legal organization dedicated to the defense and preservation of civil liberties in the United States, has been organized in the Philadelphia region since 1951, when chapters formed in Pennsylvania and New Jersey as part of a move toward establishing branches throughout the nation. Both chapters played a role in the civil liberties history of the region.
The national ACLU grew out of curtailments of civil liberties during and after World War I. The organization’s activity in the Philadelphia region began even before formation of the local chapter, most notably when it protested bans of the film Birth of a Nation (1915) that occurred in 1921 in Philadelphia, Newark, Jersey City, and Detroit. This, along with the ACLU’s support for the free speech rights of the Ku Klux Klan, drew criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in its attempts to ban the film’s premiere and protect critics of the film.
The Greater Philadelphia chapter of the ACLU originated when the Citizens’ Council on Democratic Rights, a Philadelphia group devoted to the protection of individual civic freedoms, voted to affiliate with the national ACLU in late 1951. The Citizen’s Council on Democratic Rights had been involved with the controversial Loyalty Review Boards that were part of President Truman’s probes into the loyalty of government employees, hosting lawyers from the national ACLU for open meetings on the subject as late as 1950. Having made the transition to ACLU affiliate status, the newly minted chapter focused on advocacy, public education, and litigation to preserve and enhance civil liberties.
Church and State Case
Under Spencer Coxe’s tenure as the first full-time director, the organization’s litigator and board president Henry Sawyer represented the family of Edward Schempp before the Supreme Court in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963). The Schempp family disputed whether the Abington School District could require their children to read and recite the Bible in a public school setting. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Schempp family and affirmed the separation of church and state in public schools, making the case the organization’s first significant victory. The decision resulted in changes in how education was carried out across the country, with reports of policy confusion among superintendents becoming common as they struggled with the implications of the decision.
As the ACLU presence in Pennsylvania grew, the Philadelphia office worked in conjunction with other offices in the state. The Philadelphia chapter, despite opposition from community groups, was vociferous in opposing mandatory minimum sentencing for repeat offenders and for individuals who committed violent crimes on public transportation. The Philadelphia chapter’s stances on issues such as these in the early 1980s were consistent with the broader goals of the ACLU, which advocated alternatives to incarceration.
The ACLU’s positions at times placed it at odds with city and state officials and governments. During the Newark riots of 1967, for example, the New Jersey chapter documented police abuses. In 1985 the Philadelphia ACLU, in conjunction with the wider state organization, sued the City of Philadelphia for the closure of its largest homeless shelter. In Committee for Dignity and Fairness for the Homeless et al v. Pernsley the City of Philadelphia entered into a settlement, agreeing to house the homeless in compliance with the Pennsylvania State Department of Welfare’s regulations regarding their care.
More recently, the New Jersey ACLU challenged the state’s abortion laws, overturning a ban on late-term abortion in 1998 and laws requiring the consent of parents for a minor’s abortion procedure in 2000. In 2012, the organization represented residents of Newark in their case against their city’s alleged nondisclosure of plans for $100 million donated by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for use in the city’s public schools.
The Pennsylvania and New Jersey chapters have continued to represent citizens in cases with potential for lasting impact on civil liberties. These cases include disputes over freedom of speech, press, expression, and religion, as well as cases involving police misconduct, racial discrimination, reproductive freedom, children, immigrant and womens’ rights. The chapters operate with both staff and volunteer legal assistance and are 501c3 nonprofit organizations.
Will Caverly is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Villanova University.