Answers to the most frequently asked questions - and responses to common misconceptions - about our work.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. Which rights are defended by the ACLU?
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 fifty cases pending in the courts. We also lobby at the RI General Assembly on hundreds of bills every year and offer our views to government agencies at the state and local level on civil liberties issues. Finally, through research reports and brochures the ACLU educates the public about their rights.
4. 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.
5. You’re all a bunch of liberals, aren’t you?
The ACLU is strictly non-partisan, and has defended people across the political spectrum. 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.
6. Are you funded by the government?
No, the ACLU does not receive government funding. Our funding comes exclusively from private sources, including members, special donors, and fundraising events and activities. If you support our work and believe in the principles of justice and equality, we encourage you to donate.
7. I was referred to the ACLU by another organization. Why can’t you help me?
Other organizations are not always aware of the limitations on the legal help that we can provide. As a result, they sometimes provide referrals to us for an issue that falls outside our jurisdiction. Also, as noted above, our limited resources prevent us from handling all legitimate cases that are brought to our attention.
8. Is the ACLU against religion?
Not at all. The principle of “separation of church and state,” as Thomas Jefferson described in 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.
9. 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.
10. If my landlord or employer does something that I think violates my rights, doesn’t the Constitution protect me?
The Bill of Rights protects people 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 without recourse – there may be federal or state statutes that provide protection, even if the U.S. Constitution does not.