Frequently Asked Questions
- How can I request legal help from the RI ACLU?
- What is the ACLU?
- Which rights are defended by the ACLU?
- How does the ACLU work?
- How does the ACLU decide which causes to defend?
- The ACLU always seems concerned about minorities. Doesn't the majority have rights too?
- You're all a bunch of liberals, aren't you?
- Are you funded by the government?
- I was referred to the ACLU by another organization. Why can't the ACLU help me?
- How can I get an ACLU speaker to come to my event?
- Isn't the ACLU against religion?
- Why does the ACLU seem so concerned with the rights of criminals and those accused of crimes?
- If my landlord or employer does something that I think violates my rights, doesn't the Constitution protect me?
For all questions regarding legal help, please see our page on how to File a Complaint.
The American Civil Liberties Union is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that, since 1920, has been dedicated to defending and expanding the civil liberties of all Americans. The ACLU's national structure includes more than 500,000 members, 53 affiliates and 200 chapters, which makes it the nation's foremost advocate of individual rights. Here in Rhode Island, there are over 2,400 “card carrying” members of the ACLU.
The ACLU defends the fundamental rights outlined in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. These include the right to freedom of speech and assembly; the right to religious freedom; due process of law; equality before the law; and the right to privacy. The ACLU also relies on state and federal statutes that further these and similar rights, such as the right to open government.
The ACLU works primarily in three ways: through the courts, in the legislatures and through public education. In Rhode Island, at any given time we have about thirty cases pending in the courts. We also lobby at the General Assembly on literally hundreds of bills every year, and also offer our views to other government agencies at the state and local level when they are considering issues that raise civil liberties concerns. Finally, through the publication of reports and brochures, public speaking and other means, the ACLU tries to educate people about their rights.
Because the ACLU has a limited budget and staff, it is impossible to represent every person whose civil liberties have been violated. Although we have no formal guidelines, we are generally confined to handling cases which are not factually complex, which raise clear civil liberties issues and which will have a significant impact on the law.
For almost 90 years, the ACLU has challenged violations against civil liberties, regardless of who has been victimized. It is a principle of our democratic system that the majority of the people, through elected representatives, governs the country. However, another fundamental principle of American democracy is that even a democratic majority cannot be permitted to tyrannize the minority and restrict individual rights. The Bill of Rights was specifically adopted to protect certain fundamental freedoms from the will of the majority.
The ACLU is strictly non-partisan, and has defended people across the political spectrum. At the national level, the ACLU has come to the defense of such people as Rush Limbaugh and Oliver North. Here in Rhode Island we have represented Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island as well as the R.I. State Right to Life Committee; the Urban League of Rhode Island and Presidential candidate David Duke; the National Association of Social Workers and the Rhode Island Rifle and Revolver Association; the American Friends Service Committee and the R.I. Brotherhood of Correctional Officers; and so on. In short, the principled stance we take on defending the Bill of Rights is neither liberal nor conservative.
No, the ACLU does not receive government funding. Our funding comes from private sources, including our state’s 2,400 members, special donors, grants and fundraising events and activities. If you support our work, we encourage you to join the ACLU or make a special tax-deductible contribution.
Other organizations are not necessarily aware of the limitations on the legal help that we are able to provide. As a result, sometimes they may provide a referral for an issue that falls outside our jurisdiction. Also, as noted above, our limited resources prevent us from handling all the meritorious cases that are brought to our attention.
All you have to do is contact our office to make a request, and if we are able to accommodate it, we will. Because speaking engagements are handled by RI ACLU volunteers, please try to provide as much advance notice as possible. Learn more about our upcoming events.
Not at all. The principle of “separation of church and state,” as Thomas Jefferson described the First Amendment, was specifically designed to protect religious freedom. By insuring government neutrality in religious matters, the First Amendment protects members of small or unpopular religions from being subjected to oppression or isolation from their government, which should be representing all its residents and not taking sides on religious matters. The principle further protects the majority religion from being politicized by the government, and guarantees the right of all persons to practice their religious freely and without government interference.
The ACLU supports just, reasonable law enforcement, but we also believe everyone is entitled to a fair trial and all rights of due process guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Under the U.S. legal system, you are also guaranteed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Studies have shown no reduction in the ability to fight crime because basic constitutional rights are accorded to those arrested for crimes. In fact, we’re all better off when police "play by the rules" and respect our Bill of Rights.
If my landlord or employer does something that I think violates my rights, doesn’t the Constitution protect me?
The Bill of Rights in the Constitution protects people only from infringement of their rights by the government. It does not cover private institutions. As a result, private landlords or private employers, for example, may be able to take certain actions that a government landlord or a government employer could not constitutionally take. People in private settings are not necessarily totally without recourse – there may be federal or state statutes that provide protection, even if the Constitution does not.