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Critical Thinking Resources for Civil Rights
Alliance for Justice

The Alliance for Justice describes itself as “a national association of environmental, civil rights, mental health, women’s, children’s and consumer advocacy organizations” that works to “advance the cause of justice for all Americans, strengthen the public interest community’s ability to influence public policy, and foster the next generation of advocates.” Founded in 1979 by liberal activist Nan Aron, the alliance developed out of an earlier organization, the Council for Public Interest Law. Its board includes representatives from abortion-rights groups, unions and civil rights groups.

The alliance's most prominent effort is its Judicial Selection Project. Started in 1985, the project has conducted research on and advocated for and against federal judicial nominations. Through this project, the alliance has played a significant role in opposing conservative Republican judicial nominations, including Robert Bork’s failed nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987.

On its main website, the organization offers a series of reports on issues ranging from judicial nominations to campaign finance and gun laws. Additionally, the site offers profiles of nominees to the federal judiciary, as well as descriptions of issues before the courts.

Comments: The organization's reports, though one-sided, are thorough and well-documented.

Political Leanings: Liberal

American Civil Liberties Union

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the organization, founded in 1920, is the “nation’s guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.” The ACLU consists of two entities, the main one, which primarily engages in legislative lobbying, and the ACLU Foundation, which focuses on the ACLU’s litigation. The group’s agenda is broad, including such issues as free speech, civil rights, capital punishment and many more.

With nearly 200 staff attorneys, more than 500,000 members and supporters and grants and donations that in 2007 totaled $32 million, the ACLU is the largest organization of its kind in the United States. The group has a presence in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

At ACLU.org, the organization’s main website, visitors can search (by issue and region) for legislative issues on the ACLU’s national agenda by looking at its Legislative Update. The group’s Congressional Scorecard provides tallies of how lawmakers voted on legislation that was a priority, either for or against, for the group. The site also offers summaries and updates of ACLU court cases. And at ACLU Multimedia, visitors can watch videos on various issues the organization has been involved in, including one that features interviews with former Guantanamo detainees.

The ACLU’s advocacy for First Amendment rights, equal protection, due process and the right to privacy is considered to be well to the left on the political spectrum. However, its dedication to First Amendment principles sometimes leads to its adoption of controversial positions. In 1977, for instance, it filed suit seeking to have several town ordinances in Skokie, Ill., thrown off the books: the laws barred marches by neo-Nazis. (The ACLU won that case the next year.)

Comments: The ACLU's positions usually, though not always, line up with those on left of the political spectrum.

Political Leanings: Liberal

American Immigration Lawyers Association

The American Immigration Lawyers Association is a professional organization of more than 10,000 immigration attorneys and legal professors. Its members represent a variety of immigrants, including asylum seekers, entertainment personalities, families that wish to bring relatives to the United States and companies wanting to sponsor foreign workers’ entry to the United States.

Founded in 1946, the AILA is an “affiliated organization” of the American Bar Association. But while both organizations say they are nonpartisan, the AILA does advocate in favor of immigrant rights. The group was specifically established “to promote justice, advocate for fair and reasonable immigration law and policy, advance the quality of immigration and nationality law and practice, and enhance the professional development of its members,” its website says, and it clearly sees its goals as being most aligned with those of liberal Democrats. In its 2009 action plan, AILA said: “A bi-partisan coalition will still be needed to pass major immigration reform – the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate will require 6-10 Republican votes, and the House majority will not enact immigration reform without the political ‘cover’ of at least 30-60 Republican votes.”

However, the AILA can be a valuable resource for visitors as well as its members. Its website features a page of Web resources. The site also hosts an immigration lawyer search function and offers viewers a database, albeit a limited one, of court cases and decisions relevant to U.S. immigration.

Comments: The AILA is a good source of information on immigration law; however, it, like most immigration organizations, is not unbiased. It is worth noting that the organization’s 2007 annual report reads: “No matter which party controls Congress, the potential for real, substantive immigration reform is limited by internal Republican party divisions, and by the 'rush to the center' of most Democrats.”

Political Leanings: Pro-immigrant rights

Brookings Institution

Brookings is the oldest and one of the best-known of the Washington-based “think tanks,” tracing its origins back to 1916 and founder Robert Somers Brookings, a wealthy St. Louis businessman. Its scholars generally have very strong academic credentials.

Reports from the institution and its scholars can be viewed by research programs, policy centers and research projects. They fall mainly into the categories of competitiveness, education, migration, health care or energy security.

Brookings says it is funded by “foundations, corporations, and individuals, and to a lesser extent by endowment income.”

Comments: Brookings has a well-earned reputation for scholarly excellence. Its reports are, for the most part, clearly written and can be fine guides to understanding how government programs work, or don't work. It has a reputation for leaning slightly to the left.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Cato Institute

The Cato Institute describes its work as broadening public-policy debate on “individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace.” For the last decade, Cato has supported Social Security reform through private accounts and championed deregulation of the drug industry. Cato was founded in 1977 by Edward H. Crane, a chartered financial analyst and former vice president of Alliance Capital Management Group. Most of Cato’s funding comes from private foundations and individuals, with only a small amount from corporations.

Cato is thought of as a libertarian think tank, and its scholars tend to argue for free markets and against taxes and government regulation. It  also strongly rejects government infringement on individual rights.

Cato’s publications and reports can be explored by research area, which include defense and national security, constitutional issues, and a variety of domestic issues. The institute hosts a separate site focusing on Social Security.

Comments: Cato's research is thorough and well-documented, and advances a libertarian agenda.

Political Leanings: Libertarian

Center for American Progress

Founded in 2003 by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, the Center for American Progress describes itself as “progressive.” Many of its experts once worked in Democratic presidential administrations or for Democrats on Capitol Hill. According to its website, the center seeks to “combine bold policy ideas with a modern communications platform to help shape the national debate, expose the hollowness of conservative governing philosophy, and challenge the media to cover the issues that truly matter.”

The center's focus covers a wide range of issues, including energy, health care, the economy, civil rights, immigration, welfare and others.
Unlike many think tanks, the center has a lobbying and advocacy offshoot, called the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The Action Fund describes itself as “the sister advocacy organization of the Center for American Progress.”

Comments: The center's website reflects its strong liberal bent.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Congressional Research Service

The Library of Congress houses the Congressional Research Service, “the public policy research arm of the United States Congress.” The CRS performs independent, nonpartisan and objective research for members of Congress and their staffs on a nearly endless array of issues. The Librarian of Congress appoints the director of the CRS, which has a large, knowledgeable staff and receives a sizable budget.

The CRS no longer releases its reports to the general public, but many can be found fairly easily online. The U.S. State Department and independent groups including the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and the National Council for Science and the Environment post the full text of some CRS reports relating to each group’s area of interest. The Open CRS Network website has a search engine that combines the resources of several, though not all, of these sites. The public can also purchase reports from some websites. And if time permits, individuals can request paper copies of specific reports directly from their senator or representative.

The CRS is acclaimed for its objective and thorough analyses. Authors are aware that they are writing for an audience that includes both Republicans and Democrats, and they are meticulous about avoiding partisanship.

Death Penalty Information Center

The Death Penalty Information Center is a nonprofit organization that publishes reports and conducts press briefings on issues concerning capital punishment. The center says that it does not have a position on the death penalty “in the abstract.” However, the center notes that “we have been critical … of various aspects of the death penalty in the United States.” The website highlights problems with the way capital punishment is used.

Founded in 1990 by John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine and human rights advocate, the center’s major funders include the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation and the Open Society Institute – which have funded liberal-leaning organizations – and the European Commission. The DPIC board includes the director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and several defense attorneys.

The DPIC site features reports and research on issues such as arbitrariness, costs, deterrence, international practices, mental illness and race. A database of executions is searchable by name, year, race, state and other criteria, and a state-by-state database includes information on death row inmates, executions, clemency and legislation. Visitors can see what crimes are capital offenses in each state and read about those who have been exonerated. The site includes a number of links to news articles, law reviews and other resources, and some information is available in Spanish.

Comments: The DPIC site includes a wealth of information and statistics on the death penalty. Reports reflect an anti-death penalty stance, highlighting the negative aspects of capital punishment.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Innocence Project

The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 and is dedicated to “exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.” It is a nonprofit legal clinic directly affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University and was founded by attorneys Peter J. Neufeld and Barry C. Scheck.

The Innocence Project employs a full-time staff of attorneys as well as Cardozo law students. In most cases, the inmates are either directly represented by members of the Innocence Project staff or the staff provided critical assistance in the inmates’ efforts to have their convictions reversed.

The website provides resources to explain what the project terms “serious flaws” in the nation’s justice system. It explains how eyewitness misidentification, false confessions and inadequate legal representation contribute to the wrongful conviction of “scores of innocent people.” The Innocence Project also provides resources for those interested in discovering ways in which the system could be changed for the better, and the site features profiles of those who have been exonerated using DNA evidence.

The project is not an anti-death penalty group but focuses on overturning wrongful convictions and promoting changes in the administration of justice that make them less likely.

Comments: The Innocence Project is a reliable source of information that addresses a number of ways in which the criminal justice system is subject to tampering and human error.

Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights says it is “the nation’s premier civil rights coalition,” and it has “coordinated the national legislative campaign on behalf of every major civil rights law since 1957.” It was founded in 1950 by A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Arnold Aronson of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. Today, the LCCR has more than 180 member organizations, including People for the American Way, AARP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the AFL-CIO and constituent unions, the NAACP, National Council of La Raza, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Organization for Women.

The LCCR’s website offers reports on such issues as fair housing and the status of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In addition to organizing various civil and voting rights campaigns, the LCCR is one of the main groups monitoring judicial nominations from the liberal point of view. The website for that campaign offers articles and op-eds, fact sheets, and profiles of current and past nominees. The LCCR also provides overviews of civil rights cases on the Supreme Court’s docket each term.

Comments: Most material on this site has a strong liberal, pro-civil rights slant, though with that in mind it can be useful.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Librarians’ Internet Index

Librarians’ Internet Index is a compendium of links and descriptions of websites that have been selected by a team of librarians. Publicly funded by the states of California and Washington, the site includes more than 20,000 entries that focus on a host of topics, from politics and legal issues to film and sports. LII is produced by six paid consultants who are assisted by more than 40 librarian contributors.

Started by a reference librarian in the early 1990s, LII is now under the management of the Peninsula Library System, a consortium of public and community college libraries in California. In 2002, the site launched a more limited partnership with Washington State Library, and it offers numerous websites of interest to those two states. Most of LII’s money comes from the California State Library, but site managers have been exploring other funding sources.

Users can subscribe to a free weekly newsletter that highlights various websites. It’s also possible to search the site or browse the links by 14 main topic areas and hundreds of subtopics. Visitors can narrow each list of sites by clicking on additional topics. The websites that LII features must meet various criteria, which include whether information is available for free and whether it’s credible.

Comments: LII is a valuable tool for researching any number of topics. The sheer volume of vetted websites is impressive. The amount of material, however, sometimes leads to rather eclectic lists of sites for a given topic and some misclassification. Specific searches yield the best results.

Political Leanings: None

ProCon.org

This independent, nonprofit website lays out the arguments on both sides of a host of controversial issues. Its mission statement: “We promote critical thinking, education, and informed citizenship.”

ProCon.org presents issues such as “Sports and Drugs” or “Death Penalty” by giving a brief overview of the controversy, then framing the key question — “Should performance-enhancing drugs (such as steroids) be accepted in sports?” — and breaking it down into 10 underlying debates — “Athletes as Role Models” and “Sportsmanship,” for instance. Quotes from various sources on each side of the issue help readers understand the main points of contention and what the arguments are in support of each perspective.

The nonpartisan site was founded in 2004 by businessman Steve Markoff and his wife, Jadwiga.

Comments: ProCon.org is unusual in that it provides the arguments on both sides of an issue, along with sources for those who want to follow up further.

Political Leanings: None

Project Vote Smart

Project Vote Smart is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that gathers and organizes information on candidates for political office. Vote Smart seeks to discover where candidates stand on any number of issues by scouring public voting records, public statements and biographical information, by monitoring ratings of candidates given by more than 100 competing special-interest groups, and by sending its own detailed questionnaires to candidates through its National Political Awareness Test.

By simply entering their ZIP code, visitors to the site can pull up information on their elected officials and candidates. The site also allows individuals to search specifically for any politician’s voting record, campaign finances, and biographical and contact information.

Additionally, the site compiles rankings of officials done by various interest groups such as the National Rifle Association, the NAACP and the AFL-CIO. There is also a database of officials’ speeches and statements searchable by keyword.

Comments:The website is well organized and easy to use. Unfortunately, many candidates decline to fill out Vote Smart's questionnaires.

Political Leanings: None

Regulations.gov

Regulations.gov was set up in 2003 to better equip citizens to find, view and comment upon the vast array of federal regulations.

After Congress passes laws, federal agencies are responsible for enforcing them. They use regulations to accomplish that task, spelling out in detail how specific statutes are to be implemented. Each new proposed regulation must go through a notice-and-comment process, meaning that an agency must publicly announce a proposed regulation and then allow citizens the chance to weigh in. Keeping track of these draft rules once was a daunting project, as there are thousands of federal regulatory agencies. Regulations.gov simplifies the process by collecting proposed regulations from each federal agency and offering a forum for submitting comments on them.

The site also catalogs existing federal regulations, so that anyone wanting to check the wording of rules that were issued to implement, say, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act can find them here.

The site can be searched by keywords, phrases or rule numbers. A short glossary of regulatory terms is provided, as is an extensive user guide. The site also includes an RSS feed that provides up-to-the-minute notice of new federal regulations.

Comments: The basic keyword search is straightforward, but the most powerful search functions require considerable knowledge of the regulatory process. If you know what you are looking for, Regulations.gov offers one-stop shopping. It is less useful for casual browsing and novices.

Social Science Research Council

The Social Science Research Council is a New York-based “independent not-for-profit research association” that brings the work of academic social scientists to contemporary social problems. Recent projects include studying the causes of state violence, fostering understanding of Muslim communities and analyzing the human impact of Hurricane Katrina.

The staff and affiliated scholars of the Social Science Research Council are largely professional academic social scientists. About three-quarters of the board of directors are professors at respected universities. The council says it is funded “from a range of private foundations and public institutions.” Documents available on its website show that its largest contributors include the Mellon, Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the U.S. State Department.

The council currently organizes its work into four main areas: Global Security and Cooperation, Knowledge Institutions, Migration and The Public Sphere. Its website contains online articles written by staff members and a quarterly journal featuring work by independent scholars working on SSRC-related projects.

Comments: The Social Science Research Council is a clearinghouse for academic work in the social sciences. Its reports are, for the most part, free from partisan slant. They are fine sources of information, though they may be more technical and jargon-filled than reports from "think tanks" like the Brookings Institution.

Political Leanings: Neutral

Urban Institute

The Urban Institute says it is a “nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization” focusing on “the social, economic, and governance problems facing the nation.” It has its roots in the Great Society era of government anti-poverty programs; it was chartered by a blue-ribbon commission assembled by President Lyndon Johnson to examine problems and issues faced by the nation’s urban populations.

The Urban Institute’s website offers detailed information, organized both by topic and by policy center, which are research arms within the Institute that focus on specific areas. The Issues in Focus section offers summaries of the group’s research, along with links to more in-depth reports relating to specific areas of policy disputes, such as Social Security reform, immigration and education. The institute also maintains a Policy Decoder section, which is a helpful glossary of the more technical terms used in debates about public policy and social programs.

Comments: Though liberal in its leanings, the institute's scholarship is widely respected.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Wikipedia

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia where articles may be written or edited by any user who creates a free account. It offers a vast amount of easily accessible information; the English version contained more than 3.2 million articles as of March 2009. But it can’t guarantee accuracy and sometimes has been dramatically wrong.

Individuals who write and edit articles for Wikipedia are volunteers. In theory, they bring a vast collective knowledge to bear and quickly discover and correct any biased or inaccurate entries. Advocates say this bottom-up approach produces a product that rivals traditional, top-down encyclopedias in which articles are written by individual experts chosen by professional editors. Indeed, a study in the December 15, 2005, journal Nature reported that in a sample of 42 entries on scientific topics, its experts found 162 errors in Wikipedia compared with 123 errors in Britannica. However, Britannica later challenged the Nature study as “fatally flawed” and filled with “flagrant errors.”

The weakness of Wikipedia’s anybody-can-edit policy was demonstrated dramatically when a false biographical entry on John Seigenthaler Sr., former editorial director of USA Today, went uncorrected for four months in 2005. It claimed Seigenthaler had a role in the assassinations of former President John Kennedy and his brother Robert. Those false claims were the work of a 38-year-old employee of a Nashville delivery service, Brian Chase, who had posted the libels as a joke and who later apologized to Seigenthaler. Numerous other instances of false Wikipedia entries have come to light since.

Wikipedia’s own founder, Jimmy Wales, publicly cautions students against citing it as an authoritative source. In June 2006, at a conference sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, he said that he gets about 10 e-mails a week saying, “Please help me. I got an F on my paper because I cited Wikipedia.” Wales said those comments make him think to himself: “For God sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia.”

Wikipedia is “pretty good,” Wales said, “but you have to be careful with it. It’s good enough knowledge, depending on what your purpose is.”

Comments: Wikipedia is a useful resource when beginning research on an unfamiliar topic, but it's not always reliable. Information needs to be checked against original sources, but this is often difficult due to a frequent lack of footnotes.

Political Leanings: None