American Civil Liberties Union of Washington

  • By Doug Honig
  • Posted 8/11/2020
  • Essay 21077
See Additional Media

Founded in New York in 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) soon reached into every state in the nation. Its first recorded case in Washington came in 1925, when ACLU members interceded on behalf of a Bellingham boy who had been taken from his parents and put up for adoption after he refused to salute the flag at school. An affiliate office in Seattle was established in 1935, but it wasn't until after World War II and the subsequent Cold War that the ACLU rose to prominence statewide. In the freewheeling 1960s and 1970s clients ranged from Black Panthers and the anti-war Seattle Seven to Hare Krishnas and "tune in, turn on" apostle Timothy Leary. By 2010, when the ACLU of Washington (ACLU-WA) celebrated its 75th anniversary, it had grown into a professional operation with 30 staff and a multi-million-dollar budget. Though reviled by some, the ACLU had become a force in the state's public affairs. This history of the ACLU-WA's first 75 years was written by Doug Honig, the group's communications director from 1990 to 2018.

Early Years in Washington

The ACLU's first foray into Washington came in 1925, after a 9-year-old Bellingham boy named Russell Tremain was taken from his parents because, in accordance with his religious beliefs, the boy had refused to salute the flag at school. When his parents removed Russell from school, the authorities took the boy and put him up for adoption, an action approved by a juvenile court judge. But after members of the ACLU interceded on his behalf, authorities dropped the flag-saluting issue and allowed the boy to return to his parents. This religious-freedom dispute was the first recorded case in Washington for the fledgling ACLU.

In 1931, the national office engaged an attorney for an importer after a customs inspector in Seattle seized his shipment of The Sexual Life in its Biological Significance as obscene. A jury found the merchant was entitled to regain the books.

The ACLU's Washington affiliate dates its founding to 1935, when an executive committee and executive secretary began functioning. Prime movers included trade unionists, academics, and assorted activists. They focused on upholding free speech and assembly rights, and did not shy away from controversy. When police raided a Communist-sponsored school in Seattle in 1936 and arrested several students, the ACLU protested and won their release. "Red Defenders" proclaimed a headline in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Other victories followed. An ACLU lawsuit won the left-leaning Washington Commonwealth Federation the right to meet in Bellevue school buildings. And after lobbying by the ACLU and others, the state legislature in 1937 repealed the Criminal Syndicalism Law, a tool to suppress people with views opposed to the government.

The group was largely in hibernation during World War II. A Seattle board member did inform the national office when University of Washington student Gordon Hirabayashi defied a curfew and the executive order requiring internment of Japanese Americans. Although the national ACLU board had supported the internment order, national director Roger Baldwin arranged for an attorney and provided money for Hirabayashi's unsuccessful legal challenge.

Cold War Dilemmas

After the war, the Washington affiliate revived under younger leaders. A leading dilemma in the Cold War era was how to respond to Communism, a thorny issue even for a nonpartisan group professing to defend everyone's rights. In 1940 the national ACLU decided to deny membership to individuals who adhered to "Communist doctrine" -- a move the Seattle chapter backed. Some argued that the Party's secrecy meant that members couldn't be true civil libertarians. Others felt that associating with Communists weakened the ACLU's credibility.

Yet the Seattle branch did take stands for victims of the anti-Communist crusade. It proposed fair procedures for the state legislature's committee investigating "un-American" activities led by Representative Albert Canwell, though these were ignored. The ACLU rallied to support a Canwell victim, UW professor Mel Rader. Falsely accused of being of a Communist, he was exonerated by the university's president.

A common feature of the Cold War era was loyalty oaths, which required employees to affirm that they had never been involved with "subversive activities." The ACLU twice filed suit against UW loyalty oaths. The second case (Baggett v. Bullitt) won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1964 that overturned two statutes requiring oaths as unconstitutionally vague denials of due process.

In the 1960s a new far-right movement centered around the John Birch Society demonized the ACLU. In Okanogan County, state legislator John Goldmark lost re-election after a smear campaign by Birchers, Canwell, and others. Citing his ties to the ACLU, one public speaker assailed him as "not just red, but dirty red." Goldmark sued his red-baiting critics. After a dramatic 10-week trial, a jury in 1964 found the defendants guilty of libel (although that verdict was later reversed), and the judge declared the ACLU was not a communist front organization.

A decade earlier, the branch had grown from a couple dozen to 250 members statewide, and changed its name to the ACLU of Washington (ACLU-WA). In the 1960s it became the fastest-growing affiliate in the country. Membership reached nearly 2,500, the budget leapt tenfold, and local chapters were established. The group hired its first full-time executive director, David Guren, and staff attorney, Michael Rosen, and rented an office in the historic Smith Tower in downtown Seattle. Undertaking more work outside the courtroom, it soon hired its first lobbyist, Michelle Pailthorp.

A Free-wheeling Time

The late 1960s and early 1970s was a free-wheeling time marked by marches and sit-ins, be-ins and smoke-outs. Deluged by requests for help, the ACLU saw its legal docket explode to more than one hundred cases by 1971. Clients ranged from Black Panthers and the anti-war Seattle Seven to Hare Krishnas and "tune in, turn on" apostle Timothy Leary.

When the Seattle School Board refused to rent Garfield High's auditorium for a speech by fiery Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael, the ACLU won a 1967 ruling that he could speak in a hall open to public use. Vietnam War protests gave rise to many civil liberties disputes. In 1970, Harold Spence was criminally convicted for displaying a flag with a peace symbol taped to it in the window of his Seattle apartment. His case (Spence v. Washington) made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1974 overturned his conviction on free-speech grounds. In another ACLU-WA case (Oyen  v. Washington), the high court in 1972 threw out the conviction of college students arrested for loitering when they handed out leaflets about the draft outside a Bellingham high school.

The civil liberties group's activities were wide-ranging. It assisted boys suspended from school simply for having long hair. The ACLU-WA helped establish a legal aid program for farmworkers in the Yakima Valley. In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court (in Mempa v. Rhay) agreed with the ACLU-WA that an indigent defendant has the right to counsel at a probation revocation hearing. And after a lesbian couple in 1973 was awarded child custody so long as they maintained separate residences, the ACLU-WA won a court ruling (in Schuster v. Schuster) that ended the cohabitation ban.

Landmark Cases

For years, a deluge of letters from prisoners alleged inhumane treatment in county jails. An ACLU-WA report found a pattern of beatings and censored mail, spurring creation of a state commission to monitor conditions. Overcrowding in the state penitentiary in Walla Walla was egregious, with 1,600 prisoners crammed into a facility built for 850. "Can you help us? We are not animals," implored one inmate. A lawsuit (Hoptowit v. Ray) filed in 1979 by the ACLU-WA, Legal Services, and others led to a ruling that the state must remedy overcrowding, inadequate medical care, and guard misbehavior.

In an effort lasting many years, the ACLU joined with the NAACP and the Church Council to tackle segregation in Seattle public schools. With the groups preparing to sue, the school board in 1977 adopted a comprehensive racial balance plan -- making Seattle the largest school district to desegregate without a court order.

Another landmark case came when state athletic officials opposed two sisters' attempt to play on Wishkah Valley High's football team. In 1975 the Washington Supreme Court ruled (in Darrin v. Gould) that varsity athletic programs must be open to female students. The ACLU-WA also represented Captain Susan Struck, a nurse at McChord Air Force Base in Pierce County, who faced dismissal when she sought to give birth. Under challenge, the Air Force changed its rules and allowed her to become the first woman to remain in the armed forces after giving birth in the military.

New Leadership

The rise of the women's movement forced the ACLU-WA to confront inequality in its own operations. In 1971 women staffers picketed the office; "Civil Liberties Begins at Home" declared one sign. In response, the board raised pay for clerical work and prioritized having more women in leadership roles; in 1973 Ann Widditsch became the board's first woman president. And in 1980 Kathleen Taylor was hired as executive director; she would lead the group for nearly four decades.

Taylor had directed the Coalition on Government Spying, a project of the ACLU and allies formed after revelations that Seattle police had kept secret files on hundreds of activists and organizations -- all without evidence of criminal activity. Prodded by the coalition, the Seattle City Council in 1979 adopted an ordinance prohibiting police from collecting political information unless it related directly to a suspected crime -- the first such law in the nation.

Among Taylor's top priorities was financial stability. Fundraising had not kept pace with the expansion of programs, and the group found itself $65,000 in debt. Paid staff had been laid off in the mid-1970s, and the P-I warned of the ACLU-WA's imminent demise. The group survived through intensive fundraising, getting out of debt by the decade's end. To forestall future crises, Taylor established a major-gifts campaign and hired the group's first full-time fundraiser. The budget soared to more than $280,000 and staff grew to nine by the mid-1980s.

Intrusive personal searches emerged as a major civil liberties issue. Representing rock music fans, the ACLU-WA won a 1983 ruling (in Jacobsen v. Seattle) barring pat-down searches at concerts. The Washington Supreme Court in 1985 (in Kuehn v. Renton School District) agreed with the ACLU-WA that educators can search student luggage on a field trip only with individualized suspicion of illegal activity. After ACLU-WA suits, King and Clallam counties accepted consent decrees ending indiscriminate use of humiliating strip searches. The civil liberties group also fought against employee lie-detector tests and mandatory testing for AIDS.

The saga of Sergeant Perry Watkins spanned the decade. Watkins had freely acknowledged his homosexuality when joining the military in the 1960s and even entertained troops in drag. But while he was stationed in Tacoma, the army moved to dismiss him in 1981. Watkins fought back with an ACLU-WA lawyer, and his suit yo-yoed through the courts. Ultimately a federal appeals court issued a groundbreaking ruling in 1989, finding that the army couldn't change its mind after having allowed him to re-enlist. Watkins retired with an honorable discharge.

Fighting Censorship

Efforts to censor schoolbooks and curricula were another major concern. Some fundamentalists and social conservatives asserted that public schools promoted "secular humanism" and undermined traditional values. Aided by a group known as the Moral Majority, a parent in Mead sued to remove The Learning Tree from a high school reading list; she objected that Gordon Parks's novel included swear words, premarital sex, and blasphemies against Christ. At the school district's request, the ACLU-WA submitted a brief defending the book's use, and a federal judge in 1982 ruled against censoring it.

To defend free inquiry, the ACLU-WA, booksellers, and librarians founded a statewide coalition against censorship that staged public readings from banned books. With the slogan "Empty Shelves, Empty Minds," it trained parents and teachers to combat censorship.

A decade later the target was sexually explicit music lyrics. Upset when her young son heard a raunchy rap song, an Everett mother convinced her state legislator to sponsor a bill restricting the sale to minors of music deemed "erotic." Despite vocal protests by musicians and music fans, the Erotic Music Law passed overwhelmingly in 1992. The ACLU-WA and allies filed suit with celebrity plaintiffs -- among them Sir Mix-A-Lot, Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, and members of Pearl Jam and Heart. The Washington Supreme Court (in Soundgarden v. Eikenberry) struck down the law.

Beyond the Courts

The hiring of a communications specialist and a field coordinator in the 1990s reflected an evolution in ACLU strategy. The group felt it could not rely just on the courts with so many judges installed by the Reagan administration. Influencing public opinion and mobilizing grass-roots action grew increasingly important.

Civil libertarians also turned to the ballot. In 1991 a coalition of the ACLU, women's groups, and others gained passage of Initiative 120, which put the right to choose abortion into state law. In 1998 the ACLU-WA backed the successful Initiative 692 legalizing medicinal use of marijuana. A significant setback also came that year with the passage of Initiative 200 severely restricting government use of affirmative action.

A high-profile women's rights case came in 1993 when Bellingham teenager Dallas Malloy sought a boxing match with another girl. An ACLU-WA lawsuit on her behalf gained an injunction against USA Boxing's century-old rule limiting the ring to males. Malloy defeated Heather Poynter in a precedent-setting bout in Edmonds.

Defending the rights of people whose views it opposed was long a point of pride for the organization. When the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct sought to discipline state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders for speaking at a 1996 anti-abortion rally, the pro-choice ACLU-WA stepped in to defend him. The state's high court overturned his reprimand, agreeing that the jurist's brief remarks on the sanctity of human life were a matter of free speech.

Student Rights

Years earlier the U.S. Supreme Court had given a big boost to advocacy for student rights with its landmark 1969 ruling (in Tinker v. Des Moines) that "Students don't shed their constitutional rights ... at the schoolhouse gate." Building on Tinker, the ACLU-WA set an important precedent when it represented students at Renton's Lindbergh High disciplined for publishing their own newspaper without prior review. A federal appeals court in 1988 (in Burch v. Barker) found the discipline unwarranted because the publication did not substantially disrupt schooling.

Soon the Internet became the medium of choice for teens satirizing schools. The first controversy over online speech that gained national attention arose at Bellevue's Newport High in 1995 when the principal took umbrage at a parody Paul Kim posted from his home computer. She contacted National Merit officials and seven colleges withdrawing the school's endorsement. After the ACLU-WA threatened to sue over her violation of Kim's free speech rights, the school board apologized and paid him compensation.

The ACLU-WA fought curfews for juveniles because they criminalized simply being outside based on a person's age. Many jurisdictions backed off after the civil liberties group notified them of a ruling that found Bellingham's curfew unconstitutional. And an ACLU-WA case resulted in the Washington Supreme Court (in Sumner v. Walsh) throwing out Sumner's curfew, with a warning to other cities against adopting such measures.

Criminal Justice and Police Accountability

Get-tough approaches to crime were the order of the day. Symbolic was Washington's first-in-the-nation "Three Strikes," law mandating life sentences for certain repeat offenders, adopted in 1993 over objections from civil libertarians. ACLU-WA criticism and a court challenge also failed to derail a law allowing incarceration of sex offenders beyond their sentence. Similarly unsuccessful was an ACLU-WA lawsuit against Seattle's "civility" law that targeted panhandlers by criminalizing sitting on the sidewalk.

As the population behind bars swelled, criminal-justice issues felt urgent. The ACLU-WA in the 1990s won lawsuits alleging inhumane conditions in two county jails, a juvenile detention center, and the women's prison at Purdy. After years of pressure by the ACLU-WA and civil rights allies to improve police accountability, Seattle established an office to investigate misconduct allegations, to be led by a civilian rather than a police officer. The ACLU-WA also took out large newspaper ads spotlighting "Driving While Black" -- racial imbalances in law enforcement on the road; the legislature directed the state patrol to collect and analyze data on vehicle stops and searches.

The decade ended with an event that captured international attention: a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle that drew massive protests. Faced with blocked streets and broken windows, police tear-gassed numerous peaceful protestors and bystanders. Seattle officials declared a 24-block "no-protest zone" in the heart of downtown. The ACLU-WA sharply criticized the city's response and tried unsuccessfully to block the zone in court; three plaintiffs did receive $5,000 payments in a later ACLU suit. Drawing from 500-plus eyewitness accounts submitted to its website, the group issued a report detailing widespread police abuses. Of its recommendations, one was adopted: that all Seattle police officers wear legible ID on their uniforms.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks cast a long shadow over the new century's early years. Issues of balancing civil liberties and national security became front and center. Launching a "Safe and Free" campaign, the ACLU-WA mobilized a squadron of speakers to warn against unnecessary sacrifices of civil liberties. Thousands of "Know Your Rights" pamphlets were distributed, with special attention to Muslim and Arab communities fearful of being targets for harassment. Fueled by worries that the PATRIOT Act and other measures gave the government excessive surveillance powers, ACLU-WA membership soon doubled -- to more than 20,000 statewide.

The group challenged policies and assisted victims of overreaction. The state patrol ended random car searches at ferry docks after ACLU-WA protest and public outcry. With ACLU-WA help, two law-abiding Somali businessmen gained government compensation after federal agents raided their Seattle offices and seized their inventories. Abdulameer Habeeb, an Iraqi political refugee living in Kent, was arrested, detained for eight days, and threatened with deportation when he took a train trip. An ACLU-WA lawsuit gained a court ruling that he had been mistreated and $100,000 in compensation.

Public photography could be deemed suspicious. Several law enforcement agents harassed Ian Spiers, a biracial photography student, when he simply set up his tripod at the Ballard Locks; with ACLU-WA support, his protest against profiling drew widespread publicity. Shirley Scheier, a UW art professor the ACLU-WA represented, gained a favorable court ruling and compensation after being detained for taking photos of a power substation.

Changing Attitudes, Organizational Evolution

The War on Drugs, begun by Richard Nixon back in 1971, was a long-time bete noir for eroding privacy and filling jails with nonviolent offenders. The ACLU-WA scored a precedent-setting victory in 2000 when a state appeals court (in Robinson v. Seattle) found the City of Seattle couldn't require prospective employees to undergo urine testing. In an ACLU-WA case with a deputy sheriff as lead plaintiff, the Washington Supreme Court (in York v. Wahkiakum School District) ruled against forcing students to be drug-tested without suspicion in order to play varsity sports. Looking toward its ultimate goal -- legalization -- the ACLU-WA produced a video hosted by travel guru Rick Steves on the history and impacts of marijuana prohibition.

Rapidly changing attitudes about homosexuality led to gay-rights advances that once seemed impossible. In 2006 the legislature banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. In a 2009 referendum, the ACLU-WA and allies fended off a challenge to an "everything but marriage" domestic partnership law -- the first time a state approved a gay-equality measure by a direct vote of its people. But legal marriage for lesbians and gays remained elusive for a while longer, as the state supreme court in 2006, by a one-vote margin, rejected same-sex marriage suits by the ACLU-WA and Northwest Women's Law Center.

In 2010 the ACLU-WA celebrated its 75th anniversary. The group had evolved from an informal outfit operating on a shoestring to a professional operation with 30 staff and a multi-million-dollar budget. A 2004 Seattle P-I headline had referred to it as a "Cadillac affiliate." It now influenced laws and policies statewide, with projects addressing cutting-edge surveillance technology and information privacy. Though still reviled by some, the ACLU had become a force in Washington's public affairs.


Vern Countryman, Un-American Activities in Washington State: The Work of the Canwell Committee (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1951); Melvin Rader, False Witness (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1969); Jane Sanders, Cold War on Campus (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979); William Dwyer, The Goldmark Case: An American Libel Trial (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984); Albert Gunns, Civil Liberties in Crisis: The Pacific Northwest, 1917-1940 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1983); Mason Morisset, "The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington: A Survey" (1965); Fran and Betty Hoague, "The ACLU of Washington: A Short History" (1985); Laura Brenner and Doug Honig, On Freedom's Frontier: The First Fifty Years of the ACLU in Washington State (Seattle: ACLU of Washington, 1987); Samuel Walker, In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); "Striking a Blow for Equality," Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1993; "Case Involving Free Speech and the Internet Is Settled," The New York Times, December 24, 1995; "Head of State ACLU Has Built It Into a 'Cadillac Affiliate,'" Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 8, 2004; "After 30 Years of Achievements, Head of Local ACLU Sees a Lot More to Do," The Seattle Times, July 1, 2010; Civil Liberties (ACLU-WA newsletter), 1954-2010; Papers of ACLU-WA leaders, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You