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The State of Civil Liberties

ACLU Background
This is not the first time we have seen this in American history. Allow me to make a short detour in order to give you some background on the ACLU and its support of liberty in times of national crisis.

The ACLU was created in response to the gross violations of civil liberties that occurred during the Palmer Raids of 1918. Recall that the period following World War I was a time of great political and economic turmoil worldwide. The old world order was collapsing, and new social and revolutionary movements were underway. Millions of people were uprooted, disoriented and frightened. Here in the U.S., cities were bursting with new immigrants who were poorly housed and working under terrible industrial conditions. A nascent union movement organized strikes which led to violent demonstrations and in some cases riots. Bombs exploded in eight cities, one killing its deliverer on the doorstep of Attorney General Palmer's house.

Law enforcement officials reacted immediately and drastically. Over a period of two months they swooped down on suspected radicals in 33 cities, arresting 6,000 people, most of them immigrants. The raids involved wholesale abuses of the law, including arrests without a warrant, unreasonable searches and seizures, wanton destruction of property, physical brutality, and prolonged detention.

While the public initially supported these actions in the name of law and order, popular opinion soon changed. Prominent lawyers like Felix Frankfurter charged that the abuses "struck at the foundation of American free institutions, and brought the name of our country into disrepute."

In was precisely in this context that Roger Baldwin established the National Civil Liberties Bureau - which became the ACLU in 1920.

Baldwin and his fellow civil libertarians understood the critical role that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights fulfill in our society. "Those who have power," Baldwin observed, "call their wishes justice. Those who have not power call their wishes rights…. You've got to have some law, or at least a living tradition to appeal to, or else you don't get anywhere." The Bill of Rights is that "living tradition."