Although the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) got a boost in popularity when they promised President-elect Trump that they would “see him in court” if he tried to enact campaign promises that contradicted the Bill of Rights, the organization has been hard at work for 100 years, fighting to protect our rights. Many of their cases have helped shape our contemporary understanding of First Amendment Rights, Civil Rights, and more.
Fight of the Century, a new edited collection from Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman features a treasury of authors reflecting on particular ACLU cases. Each chapter prefaces the author’s work with a brief overview of the case, its context, and its impact. Through the combination of these prefaces and the following reflections, I learned a lot about cases that I had never heard of, or had only just heard of. I also appreciated the personal reflections on cases that I knew a great deal about, such as Yaa Gyasi’s thoughts on her own education in relationship to Brown v Board of Education of Topeka (1954).
Other chapters that I especially enjoyed include “Victory Formation” by Brit Bennett, which examines Colin Kaepernick in connection to West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), which found that public schools could not force students to participate in patriotic rituals; “How the First Amendment Finally Got Its Wings” by Timothy Egan, which takes up New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), a crucial freedom of the press case; and “Loving” by Aleksandar Hemon, which reflects on Loving v Virginia (1967) from the improbable context of the author’s childhood in Bosnia and Herzegovia, where “mixed marriages” were common before the war.
Finally, a major vote in favor of this collection is that it includes a dissenting voice. That, after all, is part of the whole vibe of the ACLU, and they do not consider themselves above criticism. Scott Turow, a lifelong ACLU supporter, writes a chapter that staunchly disagrees with the ACLU’s stance in Buckley v Valeo (1976) and subsequent campaign finance cases. He does not pull his punches, but the chapter is included along with those that openly praise ACLU legal work. The collection also examines cases in which the ACLU defended the First Amendment rights of those who they disagreed with, such as the American Nazi Party. As Chabon and Waldman write in their introduction, “To understand the vital role that the ACLU plays in American society requires a nuanced understanding of the absolute value of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from unwarranted search and seizure, of the right to due process and equal justice under the law, even—again, especially—when those rights protect people we find abhorrent or speech that offends us.” There may be court cases in the collection that you oppose, but the ACLU has spent the last 100 years defending your right to do so.