The leadership of the ACLU does not always agree on policy decisions; differences of opinion within the ACLU leadership have sometimes grown into major debates.In 1937, an internal debate erupted over whether to defend Henry Ford's right to distribute anti-union literature.Under laws such as this, the ACLU and its state affiliates sometimes share in monetary judgments against government agencies.In 2006, the Public Expressions of Religion Protection Act sought to prevent monetary judgments in the particular case of violations of church-state separation. The affiliates operate autonomously from the national organization; each affiliate has its own staff, executive director, board of directors, and budget.
During World War II, the ACLU defended Japanese-American citizens, unsuccessfully trying to prevent their forcible relocation to internment camps.
The ACLU was founded in 1920 by Helen Keller, Roger Baldwin, Crystal Eastman, Walter Nelles, Morris Ernst, Albert De Silver, Arthur Garfield Hays, Jane Addams, Felix Frankfurter, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and its focus was on freedom of speech, primarily for anti-war protesters.
During the 1920s, the ACLU expanded its scope to include protecting the free speech rights of artists and striking workers, and working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to decrease racism and discrimination.
During the Cold War, the ACLU headquarters was dominated by anti-Communists, but many local affiliates defended members of the Communist Party.
By 1964, membership had risen to 80,000, and the ACLU participated in efforts to expand civil liberties.
Due to the nature of its legal work, the ACLU is often involved in litigation against governmental bodies, which are generally protected from adverse monetary judgments; a town, state or federal agency may be required to change its laws or behave differently, but not to pay monetary damages except by an explicit statutory waiver.