The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was formed in 1920 by a small group of activists in response to the Palmer Raids, a series of terrorizing Justice Department actions (orchestrated by then-U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer under the Sedition Act of 1918) against people suspected of holding politically unorthodox opinions. Thousands were arrested without warrants and detained for long periods without formal charges. Many were brutalized. More than 500 non-citizens were deported without due process.

It was a time of widespread social change and unrest. Individuals’ constitutional rights were scarcely acknowledged and rarely enforced. Racial and gender discrimination were deeply entrenched; systemic oppression of African Americans and other people of color was the norm; and the civil liberties of people living in poverty, gay and transgender people, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, and people experiencing mental illness were unimaginable.

The ACLU's first action was to challenge the Sedition Act which was repealed at the end of 1920. Over time, the organization has been integral to the advancement of civil rights and equity across the country, as constitutional principles of individual freedom, protection against arbitrary government action, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and press, due process of law, equal protection and privacy are codified in laws and their protections widely enforced. Today, the ACLU is recognized as the nation’s most formidable defender of civil liberties enshrined in the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, having led the fight for equity (just and fair inclusion) in U.S. society for 100 years. Read more about the history of the ACLU.


The story of our affiliate begins in 1933 with the founding of the ACLU San Diego Committee by anti-war activist, educator and native San Diegan Helen Marston Beardsley, who was then a member of the ACLU of Southern California board of directors.

While defending the rights of Imperial Valley farmworkers facing violent oppression for daring to organize and strike, ACLU representatives — including Marston Beardsley — were chased and assaulted by vigilante mobs. When the ACLU lawyer who secured a court order protecting the workers’ right to meet unmolested was himself kidnapped, beaten and left for dead in the desert, Marston Beardsley contacted President Franklin D. Roosevelt and others, pressuring the FDR administration to act. A federal investigation followed that substantiated the ACLU’s charges of abuse by growers, law enforcement and vigilantes and led to important protections for farmworkers in our nation’s early fights for unionization.

In 1956, the San Diego Committee became the San Diego Chapter of the ACLU of Southern California with its own board of directors. In 1988, the San Diego Chapter secured National ACLU approval for independence from the Southern California affiliate and was reconstituted as the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. In 2018, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties opened a second office in El Centro, California… in the Imperial Valley where our story begins.

Today, we are ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (“ACLUF-SDIC,” the 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization that does our litigation and public education work) and the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties (“ACLU-SDIC,” the 501(c) (4) nonprofit organization that does our legislative lobbying work), a prominent force for the protection and expansion of fundamental rights in California’s second-most populous county (San Diego), its county with the highest per capita Latinx population (Imperial), and the state’s southern borderlands.



  • The ACLU San Diego Committee defends the right of Imperial Valley farmworkers to assemble and strike, winning an injunction to stop growers and local law enforcement from intimidating organizers.  
  • The ACLU San Diego Committee files suit to compel the San Diego School Board to allow members of the public to hold meeting in a school auditorium without swearing a loyalty oath.


  • Shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, Kajiro Oyama, a Japanese immigrant, and his family are unjustly evacuated from California. After the state seizes the Oyama family’s Chula Vista home, the ACLU San Diego Committee challenges California’s Alien Land Act forbidding “aliens ineligible for citizenship” to own land. The ACLU loses in the lower courts but wins a landmark decision in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Fred Oyama, Kajiro’s son and U.S. citizen. (Oyama v. California)
  • Famed ACLU attorney A.L. Wirin later says the Oyama suit was one of the two most important cases of his career “…because they were able to establish principles which were the forerunners of the U.S. Supreme Court cases involving Negroes [sic] and affording them the rights to equal treatment and equal protection under the law.”


  • One year after the U.S. Supreme Court issues its unanimous decision that segregation in public schools violates the 14th Amendment (Brown v. Board of Education), the ACLU San Diego Committee files a class action lawsuit against El Centro School District officials and the Imperial County Board of Supervisors. The suit alleges the defendants evaded the Brown ruling by classifying Latino children as “white” to desegregate the poorly-resourced schools they attended together with African American children. In so doing, these children were denied the superior school facilities, staffing and resources provided to white children. Although the court abstains, the El Centro School District settles the case. (Romero v. Weakley)


  • The San Diego Chapter of the ACLU of Southern California wins the freedom of several Spanish sailors who jumped ship in San Diego to seek asylum in Mexico. (Fernandez v. Hartman; Lora-Garcia)


  • The ACLU San Diego Committee wins an injunction against the San Diego Board of Education, allowing famed folk singer Pete Seeger to perform at Hoover High School without first swearing a non-communist “loyalty oath.” At the time, Seeger was under indictment for refusing to respond to the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee about his politics. Seeger, after receiving an apology from the school board in 2009, states: “It is a measure of justice that our right to freedom of expression and association has been vindicated.”


  • The ACLU San Diego Chapter sues the San Diego Unified School District on behalf of ten children representing four ethnic groups. The class action lawsuit seeks to end de facto racial and economic segregation of San Diego children into separate and unequal schools where white children are favored academically. It results in an integration order and court monitoring that continues until 1998. (Carlin v. Board of Education, San Diego Unified School District)


  • The ACLU San Diego Chapter files suit against the San Diego County Sheriff and the county jail chaplain for barring LGBT people from jail church services.


  • The ACLU San Diego Chapter successfully challenges San Diego County’s severely overcrowded jails, resulting in the imposition of population caps that continue to this day. (Hudler v. Duffy; Armstrong v. Board of Supervisors) In subsequent legal challenges, the ACLU either wins outright or reaches favorable settlements in a variety of overcrowding cases in six adult jails and in Juvenile Hall. 


  • The ACLU San Diego Chapter represents Edward Lawson in a federal court challenge to a California law allowing police to subjectively stop people and require they show “credible” identification. Lawson, an African American, was frequently subjected to questioning and harassment by San Diego police officers when he walked in white neighborhoods, a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The case advances to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a 7-2 majority holds that the statute is unconstitutionally vague, overturning several California appellate court rulings upholding the law. (Kolender v. Lawson)


  • The ACLU San Diego Chapter sues the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff John Duffy for refusing to hire gay and lesbian applicants. The sheriff’s department is stopped from considering sexual orientation in hiring, firing or promotional decisions and Duffy had to acknowledge that sexual orientation is not a valid occupational qualification. (Bell v. Duffy)


  • The ACLU San Diego Chapter challenges the discharge of a transgender person from the U.S. Air Force because he was deemed “psychologically unsuitable and physically unfit due to his transsexualism.” Grant of summary judgment affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. (Leyland v. Orr)


  • The ACLU San Diego Chapter secures National ACLU approval for independence from the Southern California affiliate and becomes the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties affiliate.


  • ACLUF-SDIC obtains an injunction barring anti-abortion advocates from blockading San Diego medical clinics in a decision in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, citing the “hindrance clause” for denying women their constitutional right to an abortion.

1989 – 2016

  • Culminating a decades-long fight in state and federal courts, ACLUF-SDIC and civil rights lawyer James McElroy sues the federal government, which took ownership of a massive cross from the City of San Diego, charging that the cross’s display on public land (Mount Soledad) unconstitutionally entangles government with religion. After a Ninth Circuit victory in 2011, the protracted legal battle ends in 2016 when the U.S. Department of Defense sells the land to a private buyer. (Jewish War Veterans v. Rumsfeld)


  • ACLU-SDIC petitions the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights due to rising migrant deaths resulting from Operation Gatekeeper and other federal border enforcement actions. The petition alleges that U.S. strategies forcing migrants into the desert violate individuals’ right to life under Article 1 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.

2000 – 2004

  • ACLUF-SDIC sues the City of San Diego to end its financial subsidy of the local Boy Scouts Council (through preferential leases for public land in Balboa Park and elsewhere) that is found to explicitly exclude the children of gay and agnostic parents. (Barnes-Wallace v. City of San Diego) In 2003, the federal district court rules the Balboa Park lease violates First Amendment guarantees of separation of church and state. In 2004, the city settles with the ACLUF, agreeing to terminate the lease contingent on the Boy Scouts losing their appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court.


  • ACLU-SDIC leads a coalition of civil rights groups to block a City of Escondido ordinance prohibiting landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants. Escondido settles the suit, permanently enjoining the ordinance. The ACLU then helps to pass a state law – the first in the nation – prohibiting other California municipalities from enacting similar anti-immigrant ordinances. (Garrett v. City of Escondido)


  • Together with the local Planned Parenthood, ACLUF-SDIC sends a letter to the San Diego Unified School District urging the district to bring its outdated parental notification policy into compliance with California’s medical emancipation statutes that protect vulnerable minors by allowing them to obtain reproductive and other health care without notice to parents in whom minors cannot safely confide. The district agrees to update its policy, which becomes a model for other districts.


  • ACLU-SDIC creates a timeline of the affiliate’s first 75 years.


  • ACLU-SDIC advocates for passage of AB 271 to repeal a policy known as the Maximum Family Grant (MFG) rule in CalWORKS and allow families to receive aid to help provide for the basic needs of their newborn children. The MFG rule punishes low-income women for having children by denying financial support to babies born while their families are receiving CalWORKs basic needs grants for older siblings.

2013 – 2015

  • ACLUF-SDIC files a class-action lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of immigrants misled by the federal government and wrongly expelled to Mexico, negotiating a comprehensive settlement with the Department of Homeland Security that includes an agreement allowing individual plaintiffs and a class of qualified persons to return to the U.S. to seek legal status. (Lopez-Venegas v. Johnson)

2014 – 2018

  • Together with the ACLU of Arizona and a partnering law firm, ACLUF-SDIC files a federal suit on behalf of two Arizona residents, challenging U.S. Border Patrol’s obstruction of their efforts to monitor and protest an interior checkpoint where community members reported prolonged interrogation, racial profiling and other abuses. The case advances to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which issues an opinion in favor of the plaintiffs in 2018. (Leesa Jacobson; Peter Ragan v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security)


  • The ACLU of California (ACLU-SDIC, together with the ACLU of Northern California and the ACLU of Southern California) works with key stakeholders and state legislators to pass the Race and Identity Profiling Act (AB 953). This new law requires the collection and reporting of basic information about whom the police stop.
  • ACLUF-SDIC sues the City of Escondido for violating the federal Fair Housing Act in refusing to approve a conditional use permit for Southwest Key Programs, a non-profit government contractor seeking to provide housing to unaccompanied children fleeing violence, poverty and persecution in Central America. With support from the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, ACLUF and Escondido settles to redress unlawful discrimination against hundreds of vulnerable children. (Southwest Key Programs v. City of Escondido)
  • The ACLU of California works with key stakeholders and state legislators to pass the Race and Identity Profiling Act (AB 953). The new law prohibits police profiling due to gender identity and/or sexual orientation as well as race, ethnicity and religion.  


  • After an El Cajon police officer fatally shoots Alfred Olango, an unarmed African immigrant experiencing a mental health crisis, ACLUF provides “Know Your Rights” materials and guidance to demonstrators and deploys legal observers to protect individuals’ First Amendment right to assemble and protest.
  • ACLU-SDIC convenes its first Legislators’ Briefing Forum to educate lawmakers and senior staff about racial disparities in policing.
  • The ACLU of California releases Discharged, Then Discarded, a report co-authored by ACLUF-SDIC staff, to bring public attention to the deportation of untold numbers of foreign-born, U.S. military veterans - many of whom were entitled to citizenship due to their military service - and to provide specific policy recommendations and solutions.
  • The ACLU of California co-sponsors the California Healthy Youth Act (AB 329, SB 695) requiring all schools to teach comprehensive sex education to their students at least once in middle school and once in high school.


  • ACLU-SDIC advocates for timely implementation of the Race and Identity Profiling Act to address the findings of an independent study of police traffic stop data showing that African American and Latino drivers in San Diego are stopped, interviewed and searched at disproportionally higher rates than white drivers.


  • The ACLU of California works with key stakeholders and state legislators to pass The California Religious Freedom Act (SB 31), ensuring that Californians’ data is not included in a federal Muslim registry. The new law also prohibits local governments from creating their own versions of registries, such as the “Muslim mapping” plan the Los Angeles Police Department attempted to carry out in 2007.
  • ACLUF-SDIC participates in the simultaneous filing of 19 Freedom of Information Act requests seeking documents from local offices of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security about how the Muslim travel ban was constructed and implemented, then sues to demand enforcement on 13 of the requests.  
  • ACLUF-SDIC sues the City of San Diego on behalf of an unnamed African American minor and his mother, challenging police officers’ unlawful stop and frisk of the teenager and collection of his DNA without parental consent as Fourth Amendment violations.  ACLU-SDIC policy advocates educate and empower affected communities to call attention to racial profiling of youth in communities of color and to end the San Diego Police Department’s highly questionable DNA collection policy. (P.D. v. City of San Diego)
  • Together with community partners, ACLU-SDIC forms the Coalition for Police Accountability and Transparency (CPAT), developing goals and guidelines for just and fair policing and disseminating information to policymakers and the public at-large. With the retirement of Chief Shelley Zimmerman in early 2018, CPAT calls on incoming San Diego Police Chief Nisleit to “…set a new vision for law enforcement that is community-centered, evidence-based and informed by contemporary best practices for meeting the public safety needs of San Diego’s many unique neighborhoods and diverse populations.”
  • The ACLU of California works with key stakeholders and state legislators to pass the California Values Act (SB 54), a new law that limits state and local law enforcement participation in federal immigration enforcement activities. It offers the nation’s strongest protection against the current administration’s deportation dragnet, which relies heavily on local police involvement.
  • ACLUF-SDIC reaches a landmark settlement with the City of Escondido to redress discrimination against hundreds of unaccompanied refugee children.
  • Together with several organizations and volunteers, ACLUF-SDIC launches the San Diego Rapid Response Network to document dehumanizing immigration enforcement activities occurring in San Diego County, provide emergency assistance, and connect affected people with resources.
  • The ACLU of California works with key stakeholders and state legislators to pass the Modernizing California HIV Criminalization Laws Act (SB 239) to reform outdated laws that unfairly criminalize and stigmatize people living with HIV.
  • The ACLU of California works with key stakeholders and state legislators to pass the Name and Gender Change: Prisons and County Jails Act (SB 310), establishing the right of transgender people imprisoned in California state prisons and county jails to petition the court for a name or gender change.
  • The National ACLU, together with ACLU-SDIC, the ACLU of Northern California, the ACLU of Southern California and pro bono co-counsel, sue the Trump administration on behalf of members of the ACLU and Service Employee International Union-United Health Care Workers West. The suit challenges interim final rules issued by the Department of Health and Human Services that violate the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution by authorizing and promoting religiously motivated and other discrimination against women seeking reproductive health care. (American Civil Liberties Union et al v. Wright et al)


  • The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sides with ACLUF-SDIC in a complaint involving two border policy advocates who alleged violations of their First Amendment rights, vacating a lower court’s dismissal of the complaint and remanded it for further proceedings. (Askins et al. v. DHS)
  • ACLU-SDIC hosts its first annual Equity In Action Conference, convening and cultivating grassroots leaders and change-makers to build strategic capacities to achieve social progress on multiple fronts
  • After the U.S. Department of Justice files suit against the State of California targeting the landmark California Values Act (SB 54), ACLU-SDIC works to mobilize regional support for the new law and, in collaboration with the ACLU of California and stakeholders across the state, to discourage local governments from supporting the federal lawsuit.
  • When Christynne Wood, a transgender woman, was harassed in the men’s locker room following her transition, Crunch Fitness in El Cajon refused to allow her to use the women’s locker room. With co-counsel ACLU Foundation of Southern California and Nixon Peabody LLP, ACLUF-SDIC represents Ms. Wood in litigation against Crunch Fitness initially brought by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.


  • ACLU-SDIC works with the ACLU of California and a coalition of police reform advocates to pass The California Act to Save Lives (AB 392), bringing the state’s obsolete use of force law into the 21st century. This landmark new law clarifies that police should use deadly force only when there are no alternatives, requires de-escalation whenever possible, and holds officers accountable.  
  • ACLU-SDIC works with the ACLU of California and police reform advocates to pass The Right to Know Act (SB 1421), giving the public the right to see certain records relating to police misconduct and serious uses of force.
  • ACLU-SDIC commissions a Campaign Zero report, Evaluating Policing in San Diego analyzing law enforcement data.
  • ACLUF-SDIC collaborates with ACLU National in a lawsuit against the Trump administration that results in the reunification of thousands of migrant children with their families. (Ms. L. v. ICE)
  • ACLUF-SDIC partners with the SDSU Center for Community Research & Engagement to produce The Right to Seek Asylum: Migrants’ Stories of the Struggle for Human Rights, Dignity, Peace and Justice in the United States, releasing the report on International Human Rights Day.