American Civil Liberties Union Essay

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There are many organizations focused on the protection of civil liberties as guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution; one of the best known of these is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Craig Johnson notes that it is important to consider those who apply ethics in their leadership choices/decisions. This often takes form, according to Johnson, as serving as either a caster of “light” or of “shadows,” both of which have implications for others. The ACLU was born in the 1920s in the wake of what it considered abuses of the civil liberties of Americans by then U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.

Ethicists from Thucydides to Hans Morgenthau have explored the question of whether humans will always function based on simple instincts (e.g., hunger, procreation), or whether humans have the innate capacity to build upon knowledge and experience in order to make decisions that consider the long-term impact on society rather than immediacy. The very creation of the ACLU is one example of this debate in the sense that the ACLU is an organization created by humans to pool resources for the purpose of considering and addressing the long-term impact of problematic laws. The ACLU was born out of criminal justice policy realities and has continued in this regard ever since. Because criminal justice is multidisciplinary, it is benefitted by theorists and practitioners spanning a broad spectrum, and people within the discipline are able to impact almost any issue that at some level has a connection to criminal justice. Therefore, the ACLU has always relied on a flexible framework to maximize resources in terms of being able to address what it considers ethical dilemmas within society. It is noted that the ACLU describes itself as being willing to step in when some in society (thinking short-term) are willing to act beyond or without constitutionality in mind. Therefore, the ACLU is an organization that was founded to consider the ethical implications of actions in society in the context of criminal justice policy.

One example of the ACLU in connection to ethics in dealing with criminal justice issues is the stance the organization took in 1977. In the city of Skokie, Illinois, the American Nazi Party was banned from being able to display swastikas openly during their activities there, which garnered national attention. The ACLU, which many years earlier had joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the famous Brown v. Board of Education case, fought for the right of the American Nazi Party to display their symbol of choice. The ACLU’s argument was that to not allow the party to have some symbol for themselves representing White Power (regardless of public opprobrium), would be the same as to deny civil rights activists a symbol representing Black Power (which had also been meet with disapproval by many). In essence, fairness was paramount, and support for civil liberties did not therefore constitute support for the American Nazi Party’s position or values.

Basic training for criminal justice professionals includes scenarios designed to explore the ethical dilemmas of discretionary decision making. The question arises of what to do when out in the field alone and faced with a choice in which the correct action is not clear. The answer is that what matters most is that the choice is made with the best intention and without regard to whether anyone is watching. This, of course, becomes the ethical dilemma associated with taking a stance on any issue; it is difficult for many to divorce themselves from their emotional feelings on an issue and to look at specific aspects of it. With respect to the ACLU, this stance has taken different forms over the years in dealing with issues of privacy, religion, freedom of speech, and women’s rights. What is important to note about the ACLU is that most of its stances on criminal justice ethics have dealt with institutional issues, and not the actions of specific individuals within institutions or individuals acting alone.

Works of the ACLU

Examples of the ACLU’s work span the scope of what is mentioned above. For instance, in 1925 the ACLU supported John Scopes, a biology teacher charged with violating a state ban on evolution being taught in school. In 1942, during a time of fear within the United States, the ACLU fought the U.S. government’s actions to place people of Japanese heritage into internment camps. Since 1973, the ACLU has worked to address what it considers any movement against the privacy of a woman’s body with respect to reproductive rights. More recently in 2009, the ACLU was one of numerous organizations to fight the government’s sanction of waterboarding prisoners as an interrogation method, in terms of both definition (i.e., whether it is a form of torture) and in terms of the scope of its use. Another example from that same year is the stance the ACLU took to protect privacy rights in a court case against school officials who conducted a strip search of a 13-year-old student based on an allegation by another student.

Given that the ACLU mostly focuses on institutional actions, which tend to have broader implications for society, the tools that have been used center on the role of the legal system as a forum for addressing what it considers ethical issues. Because the courts are the primary forum for the work of the ACLU, the organization has expanded its scope to include offices nationally and many staff attorneys. Additionally, many attorneys and other legal professionals volunteer their time and services. Therefore, the structure of the ACLU has flexibility to help it deal with issues as they arise, while also dealing with long-standing issues as an organization.

The ACLU, however, is not limited to the courts in terms of work in which it is involved. The organization has been and continues to be involved in policy legislatively at the federal, state, and local levels. For instance, ACLU attorneys give testimony before state legislative committees, sometimes in agreement and sometimes in opposition to individuals and organizations providing testimony. This is important in that the stakeholders the ACLU works with in the community can often be the very same people they oppose on different ethical issues. This is when professionalism with respect to ethics comes into play among all parties. In essence, people can “agree to disagree” at times.

Another valuable tool of the ACLU is that it participates proactively when opportunities arise to identify possible criminal justice ethical issues and to be part of ameliorative change with respect to anything found. An example of this is involvement with research projects involving universities and foundations that address issues of disparity of any type. Therefore, this work can take the form of serving on advisory/steering committees or subcommittees with specific tasks, or of providing legal support in other ways.

In 2013, revelations about government surveillance policies challenged Americans to consider the ethical implications of federal agencies collecting communications data in massive quantities in order to ensure national security. The ACLU within days of this program coming to light attempted to not only gain more insight on the program in terms of activities, but also to stop such collection and educate the public about what it saw as an unconstitutional violation of civil liberties.

It is important that ethical behavior is not about making popular decisions. At the same time, it does not mean that being ethical in one’s reasoning actually means that such a decision is correct in terms of outcome or influence on an outcome. Ethics with respect to criminal justice issues has more to do with the attempt to take a stance with respect to an action that factors a greater good for others—in essence, from the standpoint of what people will say should have been done, when they look back on this sometime in the future. The ACLU has always taken a stance on what it believed was ethical grounds, understanding human beings should attempt to think beyond their immediate reactions. The ACLU, like all who deal with criminal justice issues, learns and evolves with time. To be sure, it has attempted to serve as what Craig Johnson refers to as those “casting light” on potential ethical criminal justice issues.


  1. American Civil Liberties Union. “Protecting Civil Liberties in the Digital Age” (2013). (Accessed September 2013).
  2. Bracey, Dorothy H. “Police Corruption and Community Relations: Community Policing.” Police Studies: International Review of Police Development, v.179 (1992).
  3. Golden, James W. “Testimony.” State of Arkansas General Assembly’s Racial Profiling Task Force. Testified as Member of Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training. (2012).
  4. Gottlieb, Michael K. “Executions and Torture: The Consequences of Overriding Professional Ethics.” Yale Journal of Health, Policy, Law, & Ethics, v.351 (2006).
  5. Horowitz, Irving Louis and Victoria Curtis Bramson. “Skokie, the ACLU and the Endurance of Democratic Theory.” Law and Contemporary Problems, v.43/2 (1979).
  6. Johnson, Craig E. Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casting Light or Shadow. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004.
  7. Montague, David R. “Testimony.” State of Arkansas General Assembly at the request of Senator Altus. Senate Bill 20; filed with: Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor pursuant to A.C.A. §10-3-217. “An Act To Establish A Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.” (2007).
  8. Morgenthau, Hans J. “Another ‘Great Debate’: The National Interest of the United States.” The American Political Science Review, v.46/4 (1952).
  9. Stanberry, Artemesia and David R. Montague. Travesty of Justice: The Politics of Crack Cocaine and the Dilemma of the Congressional Black Caucus. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt, 2011.

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