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American Civil Liberties Union: Strategy and Vision

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Khalif Nunnally-Rivera

The American Civil Liberties Union: Strategy and Vision

The American Civil Liberties Union, otherwise known as the ACLU, has an extensive and influential history in the United States. The ACLU has ambitious legislative goals in the near future. In order to accomplish these goals, this interest group must fight vigorously for the public’s hearts and minds, as well as the democratic power of Congress. The organization started in the year 1920 after years of anti-war protests and the Red Scare that lead to the infamous Palmer Raids. A group of citizens banded together with the purpose of protecting the basic rights of everyday Americans. While initially, most of the ACLU’s support was directed towards socialist and communist rights, the organization eventually expanded to include minority groups oppressed by discrimination, women’s rights groups, and virtually any citizen who felt their civil liberties had been violated.
The goal of the ACLU is to make sure that everyone in the United States is equally protected by the Bill of Rights from government abuse. Although the ACLU is a non-partisan organization, its views tend to typically lean towards the left, and many of its supporters tend to be either liberal or libertarian (votesmart.org). The interest group tends to run into controversy often since it is willing to defend the rights of certain infamous groups such as the Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. It’s important to note that the American Civil Liberties Union is the nation's largest public interest law firm (aclu.org). The ACLU provides a voice for those who otherwise wouldn’t have one in this country. The ACLU tackles a host of social and libertarian issues in the United States every year. Some of the major concerns that have been brought to light by the ACLU recently include the privacy violations committed by the National Security Agency, prison reform, abortion, and same-sex marriage (aclu.org). On both the state level and the national level, the ACLU has fought for new legislation concerning each of these well known disputes. By using a combination of both insider and outsider strategies the ACLU is able to effectively sway policymakers into supporting their groups causes. Public opinion also plays a huge role in the ACLU’s policy influence. This is due to the fact that this organization fights for the basic rights of common, everyday Americans. With a membership of over 500,000 people, it’s not hard to see why swaying public opinion might not be such a hard task for this organization (aclu.org). Since the ACLU has such a large scope of issue areas, a prominent history, a wide range of political supporters, this interest usually doesn’t have an issue getting it’s voice heard throughout the country. In the wake of the Edward Snowden NSA leaks, the ACLU quickly sprung into action over concerns that the privacy of millions of Americans could be put at risk. The ACLU has multiple ways of lobbying and pushing policies that they want to be enacted forward. One tool that the ACLU always has at their disposal is the threat of litigation. This tactic is a come practice and has been repeated time and time again. The ACLU in particular is no stranger to this strategy. According to aclu.org this public interest group appears before the U.S. Supreme Court more than any other organization, besides the Department of Justice of course. The ACLU has since filed a lawsuit against the United States government for the alleged unconstitutional spying activities. They are currently battling the case in a Manhattan Federal court. An ACLU victory in this case would result in widespread overhaul to the NSA’s massive data gathering tactics. This case is an example of how the ACLU can use insider tactics in order to push their policies forward. However, this organization can also use public support to help spark a change in the federal law. Using an online petition is an example of how interest groups can reach out to the general population and make sure that the voice of the public is heard by Congress. Currently on the ACLU home website there is a petition in progress. The goal of this petition is to influence Congress into passing legislation that repeals section 215 of the Patriot Act and section 702 of FISA. Their objective is to reach 40,000 signatures, in order to bring their concerns to Congress. Although one would expect that concern over privacy would vary among party lines, surprisingly, both Democrats and Republicans agree that NSA privacy violations are a major concern in the U.S.. According to a Post-ABC poll in July of 2013, 70 percent of democrats and 77 percent of republicans believe that NSA spying intruded on American’s privacy rights (Clement 2013). These statistics make the ACLU’s job a bit easier since they will not have to sway as many politicians into fighting for NSA surveillance reform. In addition to its fight for ensuring privacy, the ACLU also fights for a host of other social issues in America in order to make sure that every American is viewed equally under the eyes of the Constitution. One high profile example of this battle for equal rights same-sex marriage debate. The ACLU is a staunch supporter of same-sex marriage rights. In order to pressure congress into passing legislation the ACLU can use similar tactics used in its battle for privacy and transfer them over to the battle for gay rights. One case that has recently been in the limelight concerns the legality of same-sex marriage in the state of Pennsylvania. Same-sex marriage is currently outlawed in the state of Pennsylvania and a lesbian couple, backed by the ACLU is trying to bring a change to this state’s policies (Gabriel 2013). By using the courts to fight on the behalf of this same-sex couple, the ACLU is able to sway public opinion as well as having a chance to change the minds of those officials in the justice system. Vary layers of insider and outsider strategies seem to work best for the ACLU when it comes to promoting new legislation. Also, by influencing individual state courts, the ACLU is able to build a wider network of support for their cause. This network will be crucial if the ACLU wishes to accomplish their primary goal of making same-sex marriage legal all over the United States. Each state will serve as a battleground for new legislation and ultimately this can only lead to the federal law being changed itself.
By far the most difficult feat to accomplish is winning the public’s approval on certain hotly contested debates such as same-sex marriage. In conservative states such as South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Texas, getting the public on your side will be a much more daunting task and may require more insider lobbying than outsider. Much like the struggle for interracial marriage rights and the fight against Jim Crow Laws, this modern day issues concerning same-sex marriage may very well take time for the people of these states to adjust to. If states completely rely on public opinion in order to influence new legislation, then the process of democracy is plagued by power abuse from the ruling majority. If states had always confided in the opinions of a state’s ruling majority, than the abolishment of Jim Crow Laws in the south would’ve been a much more lengthy process, and perhaps African-Americans wouldn’t have the civil rights they do now until many years later. Insider strategies and federal government influence are sometimes key in promoting legislation in states where the public opinion may not agree with the prefered cause.
One, final major piece of legislation that the ACLU is currently in the process of fighting for concerns prison reform in the United States. This kind of legislation is specifically targeting the worst possible criminal punishment besides the death penalty, life in prison without parole. The ACLU is opposed to such a harsh sentence being doled out, particularly for non-violent crimes. The goals of rehabilitation and restoration are suddenly snatched away. Instead of these benefits, these prisoners are placed in an unforgiving environment, where a sense of hopelessness tends to set it soon after. The ACLU argues that this is not only a civil liberties violation, at odds with the 8th Amendment of the Constitution describing “cruel and unusual punishment”, it is also a human rights issues concerning international law (aclu.org). By bringing these realizations to the public and lobbying the Attorney General of the United States, working towards laws that could change the prison system can be made possible. A possible reform bill suggest by Attorney General Eric Holder is already in the process as we speak.
The American Civil Liberties Union is an interest group that stands by the people, and makes sure the laws enumerated by the Bill of Rights are equal for all Americans. Using the courts, their powerful legacy, and the common people to push their ideas forward, the ACLU will stand for unrestricted liberty. The organization truly lives up to their slogan. “Because Freedom Can’t Protect Itself”

References: "American Civil Liberties Union." American Civil Liberties Union. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2013. . Gabriel, Trip. "A.C.L.U. Sues Pennsylvania Over Ban on Gay Marriage." The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 9 July 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2013. . Clement, Scott. "Concern over NSA Privacy Violations Unites Democrats and Republicans, Poll Finds." The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 16 Aug. 2013. Web. 29 Nov. 2013. .

"Rating Group: American Civil Liberties Union." Votesmart.org. Project Vote Smart, 2012. Web. 02 Dec. 2013. .

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