It wasn't too many years ago when George Bush, in his presidential campaign, harshly described his opponent, Michael Dukakis, as "a card-carrying member of the ACLU."

The comment was fodder for political commentators and late-night talk show hosts alike. Dukakis was, and is, in good company: There are more than 500,000 American Civil Liberties Union members and supporters.

An Upcoming Target

In 2010, Byron Williams of California was arrested for attempted murder of four California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers. Williams, 45, was stopped along Interstate 580 in Oakland, California for speeding and driving erratically. Once stopped, he initiated a hectic twelve-minute gun battle, and fired a shotgun, a handgun and a rifle.

Court documents say that he told investigators he was going to "start a revolution," but other than that, his reasons weren't clear. He targeted ACLU office based in San Francisco and another foundation.

Williams was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, and his other charges could be enhanced since he fired a gun and wore body armor at the time of the shooting.

Williams faces tough penalties if he is found guilty of these charges. Under California's "three strikes" law, he'll be sentenced to 25 years up to life in prison, if convicted of these charges. His first "two strikes" are for a 2001 bank robbery conviction in Madera County, California, and a 1995 bank robbery in Washington State.

History and Work

In 1920, the courts didn't routinely address civil rights we take for granted today. At that time, the Supreme Court had never granted a court challenge to freedom of speech. Citizens risked prison time without protection for taking unpopular actions such as anti-war speeches.

Women, immigrants and others faced challenges in gaining and exercising voting rights. The ACLU has taken up causes of voting rights, gay and lesbian rights and constitutional freedoms, such as free speech and religion.

Currently, privacy rights are often the focus of the ACLU's work. Technology and security pose new questions about privacy and free speech.

Fighting for Your Rights

Today, its offices in each state and Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, are found squarely in the middle of court battles, taking sometimes unpopular positions to protect rights based on the US Constitution and those made by law.

The ACLU lobbies against laws endangering constitutional freedoms, and advocates for laws offering equal protection, equal pay and other civil rights.

Many people dislike the ACLU because it promotes the idea of "separation of church and state" or that we give up our rights in times of war. No matter what your position is on a controversy, remember the ACLU works to protect and promote the rights behind the issues.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Why would someone try to kill someone at an ACLU office?
  • Does the ACLU provide financial help for those with civil rights cases?
  • Will the ACLU work with my lawyer even if she isn't an ACLU attorney?

Tagged as: Civil Rights, American Civil Liberties Union, civil rights lawyer