Founded in 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a national organization dedicated to defending individual rights and liberties as set forth in the United States Constitution and its amendments. In this mission, the ACLU has involved itself in a wide variety of legal cases involving issues such as free speech, equal protection under the law, religious liberties, privacy, due process, and voting and reproductive rights. The ACLU is headed by a national board of directors with headquarters in New York City. In the late 1990s, membership was estimated at about 275,000.
National ACLU records note the existence of several local ACLU branches in Michigan as early as 1929. In 1960, the Lansing and Metropolitan Detroit ACLU branches merged and became the ACLU of Michigan. Though technically a state affiliate of the national ACLU, the ACLU of Michigan has considerable independence in management, budget, policy-making, and other internal matters. Organizationally, the ACLU of Michigan is made up of "ACLU" and "ACLU Fund." These two halves exist primarily for budget and tax purposes and State Board members oversee both. The "ACLU Fund" is a non-profit and tax-deductible foundation responsible for public education, the newsletter, and the legal program. The legislative program, management of the state office, and new member recruitment is the responsibility of the "ACLU," which is a Michigan nonprofit organization.
Similar to the mostly independent management of the state level affiliate, each local branch of the ACLU of Michigan conducts its own internal affairs, raises its own funds, stages its own elections, and adopts its own by-laws (though by-laws must be consistent with those of the state affiliate.) Currently, local branches of the ACLU of Michigan include Central Michigan, the Greater Flint Area, the Lansing Area, Metro Detroit, Northwestern Michigan, Oakland County, Southwestern Michigan, Washtenaw County, and Western Michigan.
The Ann Arbor-Washtenaw County Branch of the American Civil Liberties Union was founded in Ann Arbor in 1961. At that time, approximately 300 people from the Ann Arbor area were ACLU members. On October 25, 1961, the branch was organized and a temporary steering committee was chosen. By-laws were adopted on November 20, 1961 and the organization was granted branch status by the ACLU of Michigan State Executive Board on November 26, 1961. Lawrence W. Prakken was elected chairperson of the first executive board. Following Prakken, members of the board of directors have included, among others, local attorneys Jean Ledwith King, Pauline Rothmeyer, and Larry Sperling, University of Michigan natural resources professor Bunyan Bryant, University of Michigan medical school professor Ronald Bishop, former Detroit News cartoonist Art Poinier, University of Michigan journalism professor Wesley Maurer, former Ann Arbor city council Nicholas Kazarinoff, and University of Michigan School of Public Health professor Eugene Feingold.
In 1977, the name of the organization was changed to the American Civil Liberties Union of Washtenaw County. In 1982, local branch membership was estimated at 1,200. Since its inception, the Washtenaw County Branch has been involved in a variety of local issues, including censorship in public schools and libraries; targeted traffic stops by Ann Arbor police, proposed city ordinances on graffiti, panhandling, and curfews; and age and sex discrimination claims. Among these are several cases involving the University of Michigan community, including the University's passing of a student code of conduct and the dismantling of an art exhibit on campus during a conference sponsored by the University's Law School.