By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – In 1920 when the American Civil Liberties Union was founded, constitutional rights in America were a work in progress, to put it mildly. As the ACLU website points out, “The Supreme Court had yet to uphold a single free speech claim… state-sanctioned violence against African-Americans was routine. Women [had just] won the right to vote.”

Today, the ACLU still plays a vital role in protecting individual rights and due process. But the group is also a lightning rod for controversy. Their involvement in separation of church and state cases involving public displays of religious symbols has been especially sensitive. And the group sometimes goes too far, essentially admitting they made a mistake going to court to force the city of Charlottesville to allow the white-supremacist march that led to deadly violence there last year.

Now the ACLU is in the spotlight again after Boston Police Commissioner Willie Gross posted a private message on his Facebook page denouncing the group over its lawsuit challenging police handling of suspected gang members, especially their cooperation with federal immigration officials. Gross called the ACLU “paper warriors” who do nothing to help the cops fight violent crime and instead sometimes impede that battle.

Gross’s anger is understandable. It does seem that our legal system at times works more for the accused then for the victims and the public. But the ACLU’s job isn’t to help police, it’s to make sure our system of checks and balances on state power is functioning properly. Both sides have a case to make – it would be a shame if they can’t find a way to make them compatibly.

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Jon Keller