Frequently Asked Questions of RI ACLU


Protecting Civil Liberties in Rhode Island for Over 50 Years

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Frequently Asked Questions

How can I request legal help from the ACLU of RI?

For all questions regarding legal help, please see our page on how to File a Complaint.

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What is the ACLU?

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 1,500,000 members, 53 affiliates and 200 chapters, which makes it the nation's foremost advocate of individual rights.  Here in Rhode Island, we have more than 5000 members.

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Which rights are defended by 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 people's right to open and transparent government.

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How does the ACLU work?

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 RI General Assembly on hundreds of bills every year, and offer our views to other government agencies at the state and local level on 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.

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How does the ACLU decide which causes to defend?

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.

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The ACLU always seems concerned about minorities. Doesn’t the majority have rights, too?

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.

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You’re all a bunch of liberals, aren’t you?

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.

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Are you funded by the government?

No, the ACLU does not receive government funding.  Our funding comes from private sources, including our state’s members, special donors, and fundraising events and activities.  If you support our work, we encourage you to join the ACLU or make a special tax-deductible contribution.

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I was referred to the ACLU by another organization.  Why can’t you help me?

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.

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How can I get an ACLU speaker to come to my event?

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 often handled by ACLU of RI volunteers, please try to provide as much advance notice as possible.

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Isn’t the ACLU against religion?

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.

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Why does the ACLU seem to care so much about the rights of criminals and those accused of crimes?

The ACLU supports just, reasonable, law enforcement, but we also believe everyone is entitled to a fair trial and due process as 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.

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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.

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