By Susan N. Herman, President, American Civil Liberties Union

The genesis of a civil libertarian: When I was a third-grader in public school (in Long Beach, NY) our class play was Johnny Tremain — the story of a 14 year old boy caught up in the American Revolution.  I decided to take the book version out of the school library to read the whole story but the librarian told me I wasn’t allowed to.  That book was in the boy’s section.  The girl’s section, as I well knew, contained collections of fairy tales and biographies of Presidents’ wives, Florence Nightingale, and Clara Barton.

I was very interested to learn that my mother found the school’s gendered reading policy as offensive as I did and even more interested to discover that she did not simply accept the school’s decision.  She wrote a note to the librarian and the principal to express her own view of their policy.  Because of the activism of my mother, the first civil libertarian I knew, I got to read Johnny Tremain and anything else in the library.  Take that, discrimination and stereotyping!

Then and Now: As ACLU founder Roger Baldwin remarked, no battle for civil liberties ever stays won.

  • The ACLU was founded in 1920 in response to suppression of dissident speech during World War I and to the Palmer Raids, when fear of Communism led to wholesale deportation, prosecution, and abuse of thousands of innocent people. Today we fight the excesses of the fear-driven “War on Terror.”
  • In the 1920’s, we represented a Tennessee science teacher who was prohibited from teaching the theories of Charles Darwin; in 2005, we successfully challenged a Dover, PA policy requiring science teachers to teach “intelligent design.”
  • In the 1930’s, we were involved in defending the Scottsboro Boys, nine African-American teenagers caught up in a racist maelstrom in Alabama; today we are fighting overincarceration and “school to prison pipeline” policies that turn the criminal justice system into a new form of Jim Crow all around the country.
  • In the 1960’s, we represented student Mary Beth Tinker, who wanted to wear a black armband to school to express her antiwar views.  We won a Supreme Court declaration that the Constitution does not stop at the schoolhouse door.  Public schools around the country still try to control what students say even outside of school (suspending kids for Facebook comments about their teachers, for example), what religion they exercise and, yes, what they can read.  At least one southern public school established “Christian” and “non-Christian” sections in the school library, drawing a letter from an ACLU lawyer that probably sounded a lot like my mother’s note to my elementary school librarian.

Connecting the Dots: Many fine organizations fight discrimination or promote rights in particular areas.  The ACLU connects the dots, as do our clients.

  • In the 1940’s, Fred Korematsu fought a relocation order issued on the theory that any person of Japanese ancestry in California during World War II could be presumed to be a threat to national security; in 2003, Korematsu filed an amicus brief on behalf of Guantanamo detainees, arguing that they too are entitled to be treated fairly and as individuals.
  • Mildred Loving, an ACLU client who successfully fought for her right to marry a man of a different race, later backed the right of same sex couples to marry.
  • Mary Beth Tinker continues to be an activist, supporting students who want to express their opinions and students who need protection against bullying.  Follow her at

Why I have two jobs: My day job is teaching Constitutional Law at Brooklyn Law School.  As President of the ACLU, I work to give life and breath to what might otherwise be mere constitutional platitudes.

A Word from Our Sponsor: Please visit to find out more about what we do.  The website has a great deal more information about the cases and issues I mention here, as well as a priceless forecast of what it could be like to order a pizza in the year 2015 if we don’t convince Congress to protect our information privacy; a heartbreaking video of Wendy Walsh, whose son Seth was bullied to death, begging for recognition of the needs of other LGBT youths; and video excerpts of an ACLU/PEN Reckoning with Torture event held at the Sundance Film Festival, with the participation of filmmaker Doug Liman, artist Jenny Holzer, and a series of writers and actors including Robert Redford himself.   I could go on, as our work in fifteen different areas includes many other issues I haven’t mentioned (reproductive freedom, voting rights, immigrants’ rights, etc.).

And while you’re on the website, please join us.  Student membership is a bargain and you get to be counted when we are lobbying Congress or the President, or state governments.  Numbers count a lot with politicians.  And if there are one or two areas where you disagree with our interpretation of the Constitution, I wouldn’t be surprised or displeased – we support everyone’s right to their own opinions – and I hope you won’t be deterred from supporting the rest of our work.  As one of my colleagues recently said, if you agree with the ACLU 80 percent of the time, you should be a member; if you agree 50 percent of the time, you should be on the board.