Founding and Early Work

In 1958, spurred by the political environment created by the McCarthy hearings and the blossoming Civil Rights Movement in the south, Adam Mickey Duncan, an attorney and a member of the Utah House of Representatives, helped secure the charter for the ACLU of Utah from the national ACLU. He and co-founders Spencer W. Kimball, Dean of the University of Utah Law School, and Stephen Smoot were tireless advocates of racial equality, separation of church and state, and free speech.

Those interested in reading more about the early history of the ACLU of Utah should acquire a copy of Friendly Fire: The ACLU in Utah by Linda Sillitoe (Signature Books, 1996).

The information below is only a partial history of the Utah Affiliate of the ACLU. The ACLU of Utah operates through public education, legal advocacy, litigation, and lobbying at the state and local levels to ensure the constitutional rights and freedoms of everyone living in or visiting Utah. Our work is based on those principles outlined in the Bill of Rights, and our priorities include: Participatory Democracy; Racial Justice; Immigrants' Rights; Religious Liberty & Freedom of Belief; and Privacy & Technology. In addition, we continue our commitment to reform the Utah criminal justice system, protect the First Amendment, reproductive freedoms, and equality for all.

1. 1950s and 1960s

A.1950s and 1960s

  • Succeeded in challenging the police "sweep" policies that rounded up individuals from Native American, Hispanic, and African-American neighborhoods as "suspects" whenever a petty crime was committed.
  • Lobbied the Utah Legislature to enact a bill guaranteeing equal access to public accommodations.
  • Joined the national ACLU in challenging the reclassification of students by draft boards as punishment for participating in anti-war protest.
  • Worked to protect prison inmates against sexual assaults, challenged prayer in public schools, and fought laws that prohibited the inclusion of minor political parties on ballots, racial discrimination in private clubs, and ordinances banning X-rated theatres.

2. 1970s



The Utah affiliate continued to work on groundbreaking civil liberties issues despite not having a paid staff until 1976. During this time the ACLU of Utah:

  • Appealed of the conviction of a woman charged with selling "obscene" books, even though most of the books also happened to be already available at the time at the Provo City Library. The ACLU of Utah also successfully appealed a Utah Supreme Court ruling that denied unemployment benefits to a Utah woman after being fired while she was pregnant.
  • Brought to court an allegation of police brutality in the "Terrace Ballroom incident" after police set dogs on a crowd to break up a social gathering put on by members of the Hispanic community at the Terrace Ballroom.
  • Took up cases on prayer in public schools, a legal battle on the constitutionality of allowing high schools students to receive credit for religious instruction at local LDS seminaries, and voting rights for students at the Job Corps and the Intermountain Intertribal Indian School.
  • Challenged of the execution of Gary Gilmore on the principal that the death penalty was a barbarous act that violated an individual's eighth amendment rights that protected an individual from cruel or unusual punishment.

3. 1980s



The 1980's saw the continued growth of the organization with involvement in key discrimination, 1st Amendment, 4th Amendment, reproductive freedom, and equal protection issues. Specifically the ACLU of Utah:

  • Fought on behalf of women against employment discrimination based on gender and religion.
  • Challenged the 1983 Cable Television Programming Decency Act, which was based on a vague definition of "community standards" when dealing with content. The Utah Supreme Court voided the law after the United States Congress passed a bill stating that the regulation of cable content was the responsibility of the FCC and not within the powers of states.
  • Fought for the free speech rights of University of Utah students holding protests to call for the university's divestment in South Africa over apartheid.
  • Challenged a Salt Lake City anti-youth loitering ordinance because the law was vague and had the potential to be arbitrarily used to discriminate against individuals with unorthodox lifestyles.
  • Lobbied against laws that would allow EMTs to test their patients for AIDS and required people to be tested for AIDS after being arrested for disorderly conduct.
  • Defended the right of the AIDS Foundation to pass out condoms and educational materials in public spaces.
  • Defended the rights of LGBT individuals in the cases of a young man entrapped by a decoy employed by the BYU Security Office, and a challenge to the firing of a gay employee of the University of Utah Medical Center after he informed his supervisor that he would appear on a televised documentary about gays in the LDS Church.
  • Defended reproductive rights and a woman's right to choose In the case of Reynolds v. Reynolds, in which a divorcing couple fought over the custody of their unborn child when the pregnant mother opted for an abortion. Despite appeals by the father, the abortion was successfully performed.
  • Appealed a ruling by a Vernal district judge that a divorced graduate student must keep her married name because it was the same as her child's.
  • Challenged the practice of holding prayer during Salt Lake City council and Salt Lake County commission meetings in Salt Lake County, a practice that blurs the line between church and state.
  • Effectively worked to improve medical conditions in Utah prisons that were plagued with overcrowding and whose medical facilities often failed to meet federal standards.
  • Successfully fought against the practice of strip and body cavity searching of women booked into the Salt Lake County Jail on minor violations.
  • Won the right of Native American prisoners to build sweat lodges and hold ceremonies as a freedom of religion issue.

4. 1990s



The 1990s saw a focus on freedom of religion and separation of church and state; conditions in prisons and detention centers; reproductive freedom; and student and LGBT rights. During this decade the ACLU of Utah:

  • Challenged two school districts over the practice of prayer at graduation ceremonies, claiming the practice of prayer in public schools amounted to a government promotion of religion and violated the Utah State constitution. When legislators later moved to rewrite the state constitution with regards to the government's involvement with religious affairs, aggressive lobbying by the ACLU of Utah delayed passage of final legislation for a year.
  • Reached a settlement with the Utah State Department of Corrections that placed restrictions on overcrowding in the prisons. The state subsequently agreed to establish a mental health facility for prisoners, and to improve medical and mental health care for all prisoners.
  • Helped and inmate receive the AIDS medication she was denied in prison.
  • Advocated for improved conditions in juvenile corrections facilities, reducing overcrowding and separating individuals based on the severity of their crimes.
  • Fought against a bill that criminalized abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or extreme medical necessity, and required a woman to seek a doctor's approval of their decision.
  • Stopped the practice of requiring individuals to show proof of citizenship and legal residency at hospitals and after being stopped for minor traffic violations.
  • Successfully challenged an illegal secret meeting of many members of the Utah State Senate, the focus of which was a gay- and lesbian-bashing discussion and film screening.
  • Won a lawsuit against the State Board of Education for prohibiting gay, lesbian, and straight support groups, and against the Nebo School District on behalf of a teacher who, after she revealed that she is a lesbian, was fired as volleyball coach and received a memo from the district instructing her not to discuss her personal life with students, parents, or other employees.

5. 2000-2010



During the first decade of the new century, the Utah affiliate continued to expand its infrastructure, staff, and membership while taking on cases and addressing issues of vital importance to civil liberties in the state. The ACLU of Utah:

  • Represented Mani King, a man of Indian-Sikh descent, who was pulled over, detained and searched by Utah Highway Patrol without probable cause, perhaps on account of his race. The case settled favorably out of court.
  • Opposed a Division of Child and Family Services policy requiring that all adults in an adoptive home to be related by blood, adoption, or marriage, effectively prohibiting any gay, lesbian, or unmarried heterosexual couple from adopting.
  • Fought for government transparency after the Utah Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission held two "emergency" meetings by telephone to revise a proposed rule targeting alcohol advertising that depicts religious figures, symbols, or themes. The meetings violated Utah's open and public meetings laws.
  • Defended Wendy Weaver, a teacher who faced a lawsuit that sought to ban her from teaching, simply because she had challenged a gag order that prohibited her from discussing her sexual orientation in or outside of the classroom.
  • Filed suit on behalf of the Humane Society of Utah to force the Utah Wildlife Board to abide by the Open and Public Meetings Act in its decision to endorse a state ballot initiative.
  • Sought GRAMA records from, and negotiated with, the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command to ensure that vital public forum areas would remain open to protesters during the 2002 Winter Olympics and organized teams of legal observers to be at all organized free speech events during the Olympics.
  • Appealed on behalf of Kristin Foote, a woman with a slight speech impediment who was believed by police to be under the influence of drugs, and subsequently detained and strip-searched. Foote had sued, claiming violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Fought to uphold freedom of speech and separation of church and state in two cases involving the Main Street plaza. In the first case, the downtown block of Main Street between North and South Temple was sold to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was granted the right to broadcast its own messages and ban all other viewpoints. The ACLU successfully argued that because of Main Street's unique role in Salt Lake City's history and its ongoing use as a public thoroughfare, it continues to be a public forum. The second case occurred when the city council voted to swap the plaza's public easement for land owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the west side of town and funds to create a new community center. The ACLU challenged this decision on the grounds that it violated free speech rights and represented an unconstitutional endorsement of the LDS Church.
  • Challenged an Ogden city ordinance that banned all interior or exterior signs, displays, and graffiti from vacant buildings. The ACLU believed the ordinance was not being applied in a content-neutral, instead being used to restrict the speech of Bruce Edwards, who was involved in a series of disputes with city officials.
  • Defended Fourth Amendment rights in the case of Judith Regan, an out-of-state reporter who was detained and strip-searched after refusing to a sign a traffic ticket that required her to be in Utah for a court date at a time that she knew she would not be in the state.
  • Provided legal support to a lawsuit challenging a voter-approved law that made English the official language of Utah. A district court subsequently limited the law, ensuring that that government agencies do not deny language minorities equal access to government processes, programs, and services.
  • Brought lawsuits on behalf of students seeking to form gay-supportive student clubs at East High School. To prevent the GSA clubs from meeting, the Salt Lake City School District had banned all student clubs not related to curriculum. After five years of legal battles, the Salt Lake School Board reverse the district's extreme policies, making the district a forum in which students can express gay-positive viewpoints and help create a safer school environment for lesbian and gay youth.
  • Successfully fought to overturn a 2001 law targeted at animal rights activists by prohibiting what legislators called "commercial terrorism." The definition of this term included a substantial amount of constitutionally protected expression and applied to any person and any business.
  • Supported the right to personal privacy in the case of Salt Lake City v. Keith Roberts. Roberts had been arrested for public lewdness, but argued that the police had violated the "plain view" rule. The Utah Supreme Court ruled that because Roberts had taken reasonable steps to shield his activities from public view, the city could not apply the "plain view" doctrine to the public lewdness code.
  • Defended Ian Lake, a 16-year-old who was charged with criminal libel over a website he created that parodied his Milford High School teachers and classmates. The First Amendment prohibits government censorship of free speech, and past Utah statutes purporting to punish statements made with "ill will" have consistently been overturned. As a result of this case, the Utah Supreme Court declared the state's criminal libel law unconstitutional.
  • Challenged the constitutionality of a Draper City ordinance placing durational time limits on political signs based on their content. In response to the ACLU's lawsuit requesting a temporary injunction, Draper City announced that it would not enforce the ordinance through Election Day 2004, and subsequently agreed to repeal the ordinance.
  • Filed an amicus brief in support of Salt Lake City's 2005 executive order extending benefits to domestic and same-sex partners. The ACLU's public policy arguments in favor of the benefits ultimately overrode concerns by the state the benefits may be in conflict with the Utah law prohibiting same-sex marriage, when the Third District Court upheld the benefits plan.
  • Fought against gender discrimination in the case of a woman who was fired by the Utah Transit Administration after revealing that she is a transsexual.
  • Represented the family of David Walker in a suit charging the Orem and Pleasant Grove Police Departments and the Utah County Sheriff's Department with excessive force and unlawful detention in an incident that resulted in Walker's fatal shooting by police. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals would conclude that the officers had violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits illegal searches and seizures, when they detained Walker's family following the shooting.
  • Strongly advocated for the rights of students to free speech and expression, informing Washington County School District in 2009 that it must allow Gay Straight Alliance clubs at its high schools or be in violation of the Equal Access Act. Since then, four 4 GSAs have been established in Washington County, and the number of GSAs statewide has more than doubled.
  • Defended participatory democracy in two cases against state efforts to limit election access. The ACLU represented 2010 gubernatorial candidate Farley Anderson, who successfully challenged the state's rejection of his ballot petition signatures, most of which were "e-signatures." Although the Utah Supreme Court upheld the validity of e-signatures in ballot petitions, Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell refused to count e-signatures that were collected as part of an effort to repeal 2011 bill, H.B. 477, through referendum. The ACLU challenged Bell's invocation of a past election law that contained a blanket ban on any e-signature, arguing that S.B. 165 is unconstitutional in wake of the Utah Supreme Court's decision in Anderson v. Bell.

6. 2011-2016


  • Fought for criminal defendants’ right to receive discovery materials in their pending cases, ending Salt Lake County’s practice of charging unlimited fees. 
  • Opposed HB 477 in 2011, which would have violated the state and federal constitutional rights of Utah voters and dangerously invalidated sections of GRAMA.
  • With the National Immigration Law Center, successfully blocked the implementation of Utah’s “show me your papers” law, which invited the racial profiling of Latinos. 
  • Along with a coalition of community partners, argued against an unconstitutional 2012 law aimed to regulate internet speech that may be considered to be “harmful to minors,” and preserved Utahns’ freedom of speech.
  • Defended the First Amendment rights of a Utah driver who made an obscene gesture at an Orem City Police officer and was issued a citation, and prompted the Orem City Police Department to continue First Amendment protection education in its annual training. 
  • Filed a successful lawsuit against the Davis School District after elementary schools in the district were instructed to remove a children’s book about a family with same-sex parents from library shelves. 
  • Successfully repealed a Brigham City Ordinance that violated free speech protections and required a permit for almost any conceivable form of public expression. 
  • Filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of a group of prisoners at the Utah State Prison, who suffered health concerns and were subjected to prolonged exposure to noxious gas after corrections officers released tear gas that entered the air ventilation system and seeped into over 150 inmates’ cells.  
  • With community partners, the ACLU filed an successful appeal against Ogden City’s “gang injunction,” which imposed stringent and unconstitutional restrictions on any citizens that the police decided, without prior judicial oversight, were members of a “gang.”
  • Represented the plaintiffs in a suit in which the Federal District Court in Utah struck down UDOT’s insurance and indemnification requirements, which violated the United States Constitution’s protection of freedom of speech.
  • Submitted a “friend of the court” brief to support the case calling for heightened scrutiny to be placed on any law that discriminates against same-sex couples and their families, and supported the legalization of same sex marriage in Utah. 
  • Maintained the unconstitutionality of Salt Lake County Jail’s policy of holding individuals indefinitely who could not prove, to the satisfaction of jail officials, that they are lawfully present in the United States. The ACLU of Utah argued that this policy deprived people of their personal liberty without due process of law.
  • Filed class action lawsuit challenging Utah’s HB 497, which would have allowed police to arrest certain potentially deportable immigrants and would have criminalized everyday activities, such as driving an undocumented immigrant to the store.
  • Worked with Equality Utah and the LDS Church to successfully lobby for SB 296, which expanded anti-discrimination laws to protect Utah’s LGBTQ citizens and ensured that no one can be fired or disciplined at work for their speech or expression outside of work on matters including those related to marriage, family or sexuality.
  • Successfully sued on behalf of Angie and Kami Roe, a married same-sex couple, to both be recognized as the legal parents of their child. 
  • Challenged Farmington City’s “free speech” ordinance that prohibited public expression and barred the Utah Animal Rights Coalition from freely protesting.
  • Lobbied for HB 300, which sets forth basic standards for the responsible use of body cameras by law enforcement agencies across the state of Utah.
  • Submitted an official request that the video footage of the shooting of Abdi Mohamed by the Salt Lake City Police Department be released to the public under GRAMA.
  • Brought a successful federal lawsuit on behalf of three West High School students against school and police defendants over a “gang operation” conducted at the school during school hours, during which dozens of students were detained and interrogated about alleged gang affiliation. The students documented and photographed “mug-shot” style by the police did not commit a crime, and all were of Latino, African-American, or Pacific Island decent. 
  • Defended the voting rights of members of the Navajo Nation and challenged San Juan County’s decision to switch to a mail-only voting system and designating the only location for in-person voting in Monticello, a decision that adversely impacts Navajo voters.
  • Asserted Utahans’ right to access legal counsel, advocated for the reform of Utah’s troubled indigent defense system, and filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Utah for failing to fulfill the guarantees of the Sixth Amendment.