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Liberty Belongs to Everyone or No One: The Beginnings of the ACLU of Indiana

By Diana Poncar, Guest Writer

Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana (ACLU of Indiana) is a well-known, respected and organized affiliate of the national ACLU, with thousands of card-carrying members who support its mission to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country. However, in October of 1953, approximately 70 professionals from the Indianapolis area—respected doctors, lawyers, and university faculty—found themselves, perhaps for the first time, a minority group in their community.

We all of us, at some time or other, are going to find ourselves in the minority group. Perhaps it might be politically, or it might be religiously, or it might be just a minority group on some other question, but we are going to find that we are at some time or other a minority.

—Father Victor L. Goosens, Nov. 1953

The group, looking to start an Indiana affiliate of the already established ACLU, initially was able to secure a meeting spot in the auditorium of the Indiana War Memorial located in the heart of Indianapolis. But just days before the meeting set to occur on November 20, 1953, the War Memorial Commission informed the group that they could not make use of its facilities. When asked why, War Memorial secretary F.J. "Star" Brown said he had received several complaints, most notably from an organization called the Indiana Minute Women and from the local branch of the American Legion.

The complaints that sparked the controversy were captured in a broadcast of the popular TV news program at the time, See It Now with Edward R. Murrow. In the program segment, often referred to as "The Argument in Indianapolis," it became apparent that people were concerned that the Indiana Civil Liberties Union (ICLU), as the ACLU of Indiana was first known, was simply a front for a communist group and was trying to destroy the liberty it actually stood for. Commissioner of the American Legion, Roy M. Amos, echoed these sentiments of suspicion in front of the See It Now cameras:

stMarysSt. Mary Catholic Church, Indianapolis. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

"The American Legion can never agree that the Indiana War Memorial is a fitting place for a meeting of the American Civil Liberties Union... [it] must never be used as a sounding board for the advocacy of any policy of pampering of communists to the virtual exclusion of all others."

Undeterred, the ICLU pressed on to find a new meeting space, but because of the complaints made by the Minute Women and the American Legion, it was turned down by every location it approached. Local hotels, the YMCA, several churches and even a piano studio all reportedly were booked or mysteriously unavailable to host a meeting on November 20. But finally, amidst all the chaos, Father Victor L. Goosens, head pastor at St. Mary's Catholic Church in downtown Indianapolis, offered a meeting place to the group. Father Goosens poignantly expressed why he decided to give his support via the use of his parish's space in an interview shown in "The Argument in Indianapolis":

"If it is possible for any group outside of the legally constituted branches of government to restrain another from peaceful assembly and from the right to express themselves freely, then all our liberties are in danger. If one organization can prevent another group of people from gathering together...to discuss and to speak freely, then what guarantee would there be that later on, another group might not decide that when I or my people gather together for purpose of worship or the exercise of freedom of religion, we should be stopped?"

With the support of Father Goosens, the writers at See It Now, and the local press, the ICLU had a space of its own for the time being. But using the advantage of the spotlight that was thrust upon it, the ICLU made it clear that it was far from backing down. The ICLU began a decades-long legal battle by filing a petition against the Indiana War Memorial Commission in August of 1967, stating that the continued denial of use of the War Memorial was unconstitutional.

In the years following the original request for the auditorium, support grew for the ICLU. The Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis Times published editorials backing the group. Public hearings were held on the matter in April 1968, and even Indiana's governor, Matthew E. Welsh, sided with the ICLU. With so much support on its side, it was only a matter of time before the ICLU would gather enough evidence to support its argument in court.

Despite a discouraging ruling by the high court that sided with the Commission in July 1968, which was upheld in January 1970 by Judge Charles W. Applegate, the ICLU kept up the fight. In April 1970, attorney Henry J. Price, who later became the ICLU's Board President, filed an appeal in the Indiana Supreme Court on behalf of the ICLU against the Indiana War Memorial Commission.

Event programTo Hire a Hall - event program for the first meeting of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union at the Indiana War Memorial in 1973.

Then, after nearly 20 years in court, the tables were turned and the original decision made by Judge Applegate was reversed. On Feb. 1, 1973, Justice Donald H. Hunter noted that "the law protects public use of the War Memorial, so long as that use is not inconsistent with the purpose for which the Memorial was established"—purposes which, according to Indiana War Memorial records, were broad enough to apply to almost any group. Many diverse organizations, from the Garden Club of Indiana to the Barbershop Quartet Society, had made use of the space, so Justice Hunter determined that the Indiana War Memorial Commission did not have the authority to deny the ICLU the right to meet there as well. The battle was won, and the ICLU closed the chapter on its first success story.

With a permanent home on East Washington Street in Indianapolis, a full-time staff and a wide range of volunteers, donors and other supporters, the ICLU, now known as the ACLU of Indiana, has come a long way from its search for that first meeting place. It is proud of what it has become and all it has accomplished. But the struggle it took to get here, and the initial fight that inspired the ACLU's ongoing commitment to civil liberty, must never be forgotten.

NOTE: This article was published in the Summer 2012 issue of Carrying the Torch.

To find out more about the ACLU of Indiana, visit the Indiana History Center's Destination Indiana exhibit.