The ACLU Mandate: What rights are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights?

The mission of the ACLU is to assure that the Bill of Rights – amendments to the Constitution that guard against unwarranted governmental control – is preserved for each new generation. To understand the ACLU’s purpose, it is important to distinguish between the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Constitution itself, whose bicentennial we celebrated in 1987, authorizes the government to act. The Bill of Rights limits that authority.

The Bill of Rights lays out the guiding principles of our democratic government: freedom and equality for all. It serves as the ACLU’s blueprint for action today just as it has since our inception in 1920.

At our founding, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were nearly 150 years old, yet people could not freely exercise many of the rights the Constitution guaranteed. People were denied the right to demonstrate publicly. There was no curb against censorship. Women’s rights were unprotected. Racial discrimination was open and legal. There was no due process for the accused, and little protection for religious freedom. By winning one precedent-setting case after another, the ACLU has established the vast majority of civil liberties in the land.

First Amendment rights:
These include freedom of speech, association and assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, including the strict separation between church and state which is the foundation of religious liberty.

Equal protection of the law:
The right to equal treatment regardless of race, sex, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, age, physical disability, or other such classification. These rights apply to the voting booth, the classroom, the workplace and the courts.

Due process of law:
The right to be treated fairly when facing criminal charges or other serious accusations that can result in such penalties as loss of employment, exclusion from school, denial of housing, or cut-off of benefits.

The right to privacy:
The right to a guaranteed zone of personal privacy and autonomy which cannot be penetrated by the government or by other institutions, like employers, with substantial influence over an individual’s rights.

Expanding those protections:
Although some segments of our population have traditionally been denied these rights, the ACLU works to extend protection to racial minorities, gay men and lesbians, mental patients, prisoners, soldiers, children in the custody of the state, the disabled, and Native Americans.