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Who funds the ACLU anyway?

by | Feb 21, 2023 | Latest, Opinion

On the donation site of the American Civil Liberties Union, the organization states: “The ACLU has been at the center of nearly every major civil liberties battle in the U.S. for over 100 years. This vital work depends on the support of ACLU members in all 50 states and beyond.”

In a press release entitled “Civil Liberties And Civil Rights Voters Emerge As Key 2020 Constituency” dated August 13, 2020, the ACLU revealed: 

“The American Civil Liberties Union released data today showing its supporters are a key constituency in the 2020 elections, accounting for nearly $463 million of donations to Democratic candidates, committees, and PACs; and $19 million to Republicans – including $1.7 million to President Trump’s campaign. ACLU supporters’ contributions represent between 20 and 30 percent of all Democratic fundraising, making them a key backbone of political engagement this cycle.” 

The fact that Republicans received only about 24% of the amount given Democrats by ACLU supporters falls in line with a generally perceived notion that ACLU activities are mostly about Democrats and their causes. If that is so, has the ACLU’s focus changed in the years of its existence? 

In May of 2015, when Bill O’Reilly and his “Talking Points” were a staple of his show on the Fox News Network, O’Reilly reported that the majority of ACLU money came from foundations: the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute of George Soros, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He named famous people who were board trustees of the foundations: TV commentator Bill Moyers for Soros’s group, Judy Woodruff of CNN for Carnegie, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma with Rockefeller.

Otherwise, it has been rare to have names publicly associated with ACLU donations. The ACLU is a 501(c)(4), nonprofit corporation. This gives it the ability to lobby on behalf of its mission. but gifts to it are not tax-deductible. Those who donate directly to the ACLU or become a member believe deeply in the ACLU’s efforts. 

If a person or organizations wants a tax-deductible donation to help the ACLU, they can do that through the ACLU Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. 

The American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920 by a committee of many successful people that included Helen Keller and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, with a primary focus on freedom of speech, mostly for anti-war protesters such as those who didn’t believe in World War I. President Woodrow Wilson’s Justice Department under A. Mitchell Palmer had conducted raids in 1919 and 1920 to capture and arrest suspected anarchists and communists and deport them from the United States. These efforts were part of the First Red Scare after the “War to End All Wars” and the Communist Revolution in Russia. 

One ACLU founder, leftist and author Roger Nash Baldwin, served as executive director of the organization until 1950. He directed many famous ACLU cases, including the Scopes Trial about evolution being taught in state schools. 

With labor strikes going on and race riots taking place in more than 30 cities, the time period of the ACLU’s founding was highly tumultuous. Attorney General Palmer appointed 24 year-old J. Edgar Hoover to head up the Justice Department’s new Bureau of Investigation on August 1, 2019 to deal with the troubles. Despite Justice Dept. efforts, anarchist bombings continued for over a decade. 

Given all this, it seems that American civic events one hundred years after the founding of the ACLU bear an interesting resemblance to the time just after World War I. The activities of Antifa and BLM and the burning and riots in cities across the country reflected that. 

This poses a question: What civil liberties battles being fought by the modern ACLU, and who is supporting these fights? 

Former Meta Platforms Inc. CEO Sheryl Sandberg was running Facebook in 2018 when it was sued by the ACLU for “alleged age, gender and race discrimination in the targeting features of its paid advertising products.” In October 2022, billionaire Sandberg gave the ACLU a $3 million grant “to boost its political activities around access to abortion.” 

In 2016, actress Amber Heard made a commitment to donate $3.5 million to the ACLU over 10 years from a $7 million divorce settlement from Johnny Depp, but the money had not fully materialized as their trial dragged onward. This brought criticism of the organization from The Atlantic magazine. 

The Insider reported that “Amber Heard donated just $1.3 million of the $3.5 million she pledged to the ACLU from her Johnny Depp divorce settlement, and $500,000 of that likely came from Elon Musk” according to the ACLU. (Musk dated Heard briefly after Depp.)

If you search for who donates to the ACLU, the names of Sandberg and Heard come up most prominently. If you look for a comprehensive list of ACLU donors, good luck, it’s hard to find. The reasons it exists are plainly stated. On its own site about becoming an ACLU member, the ACLU outlines the scope of its current efforts as “fighting for racial justice, continue to defend LGBTQ equality, create a firewall for abortion access, protect voting rights, and more.”

It’s worth noting that in the weeks after Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency, the ACLU received over $15 million in donations, which it said was “an amount unprecedented in its history.” After Trump was sworn in, the organization had taken in over $24 million. The Washington Post listed some Hollywood donor names, as well as the fact that ride-sharing company Lyft announced a $1 million donation over four years. This naming ACLU supporter names was rare. 

While the over-riding perception of the ACLU these days may seem that it adheres mostly to pet causes of the American left, some efforts and donations in recent times have helped those caught up in the justice system. In January of 2023 the ACLU of Indiana and the firm Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP filed a lawsuitclaiming individuals on death row in the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, were being held in isolated conditions constituting cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Because so much ACLU work is done via state and local groups, only big donations by people with a national name seem to achieve major media notice. There are people, however, who have donated to the group in large amounts with specific actions in mind. One example is Greg Lindberg, founder of the company Global Growth. 

In June of 2020, Lindberg announced a $1 million pledge to the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project (CLRP) which seeks to end excessively harsh criminal justice policies that result in mass incarceration, over-criminalization, racial injustice, and stand in the way of a fair and equal society. 

“This contribution is meant to help people who don’t have the resources to fight injustice,” Lindberg said. “I have been disturbed by the consequences of prosecutorial abuses and unjust incarceration of non-violent offenders for some time. Recent events have exacerbated these concerns. Most people can’t afford to fight and they get rolled over by prosecutors and their bag of tricks. ‘Justice for all’ is sadly a mirage in much of today’s America.”

Lindberg’s press release sprang from his deep conviction that USA justice system reform is badly needed. That aside, it is rare that ACLU contributors reveal their donations. In December 2009, the ACLU’s then largest donor, philanthropist David Gelbaum, explained why he had to greatly reduce his donations that year: “[M]y investments in alternative, clean energy companies have placed me in a highly illiquid position as a result of the general credit crisis in the American and world financial systems.” Gelbaum exhorted others to donate, though. 

All told, the ACLU will continue defending people in alignment with the organization’s stated (if changing) aims. It is just as well that most donations remain anonymous. If anyone wants to find out more about how it all works and who does the giving, there best solution might be to simply sign up as a member. 

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