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Constitution, Declaration Of Independence Now Have ‘Trigger Warnings’ On National Archives Site
Peter Drummey, chief reference librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society, points to a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence, known as a "Dunlap Broadside," at the society in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Monday, June 29, 2015. Here in acid-free, low humidity stacks are 13 million pages of the personal letters and diaries of men and women who helped create the world we live in. Photographer: Shiho Fukada/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Shiho Fukada/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Digital copies of America’s founding documents — as well as other historical documents in the National Archives’ online catalog — now feature “trigger warnings” alerting readers that they may contain “harmful language,” and the change appears to follow the release of a “little-noticed” report from a National Archives racism task force that suggested the agency provide “context” for its historical materials.

Digital copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, most notably, now feature a “Harmful Language Alert,” which appears at the top of the page, and directs users to a National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) statement on “potentially harmful content.”

The NARA does not specify why the Constitution, Declaration, or Bill of Rights received the warning, but the NARA statement indicates that documents and historical materials are marked as having “harmful language” when they:

  • reflect racist, sexist, ableist, misogynistic/misogynoir, and xenophobic opinions and attitudes;

  • be discriminatory towards or exclude diverse views on sexuality, gender, religion, and more;

  • include graphic content of historical events such as violent death, medical procedures, crime, wars/terrorist acts, natural disasters and more;

  • demonstrate bias and exclusion in institutional collecting and digitization policies.

Trigger warnings are listed as just one of a number of solutions to the problem of providing historical documents to an increasingly “diverse community,” the NARA notes, and are part of an “institutional commitment” to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

“The Catalog and web pages contain some content that may be harmful or difficult to view,” NARA said in a statement released at the end of July. “NARA’s records span the history of the United States, and it is our charge to preserve and make available these historical records. As a result, some of the materials presented here may reflect outdated, biased, offensive, and possibly violent views and opinions. In addition, some of the materials may relate to violent or graphic events and are preserved for their historical significance.”

When a commentator on social media suggested that it was outrageous that America’s founding documents would require a trigger warning, the National Archives was quick to respond by noting that the alert is “not connected to any specific record, but appears at the top of the page while you are using the online Catalog.”

Indeed, the warning appears at the top of other documents, including the “miscellaneous” papers of the Continental Congress, the Articles of Confederation, and an institutional description of the Continental Congress.

A search of archived images of the Declaration of Independence’s digital page shows that the warning was not present earlier this year.

Although the NARA does not give a specific rationale for the change in approach to historical documents, as The Daily Wire reported earlier this summer, a “little-noticed” report from a National Archives task force on racism suggested major changes to the Archives, including changes to its landmark rotunda.

In an exclusive report out Sunday, Fox News noted that a “little noticed” report from a National Archives task force on racism suggested the building, where America’s founding documents are displayed, was an example of “structural racism” and suggested major changes to how the Constitution and other notable records are presented in order to provide “context.”

The group also reportedly suggested that the National Archive’s portrayal of individual founding fathers was too positive.

The report suggested that documents displayed in the rotunda — the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights — be marked with “trigger warnings” for individuals who might suffer “physiological and psychological symptoms” as a result of coming into contact with the information.

“Providing an advisory notice to users gives us an opportunity to mitigate harm and contextualize the records..It creates a space to share with the public our ultimate goals for reparative description, demonstrate our commitment to the process, and address any barriers that we may face in achieving these goals (i.e., the size and scope of the Catalog and the ever-evolving knowledge we gain regarding what is harmful).”

The task force also said that the National Archives should “engage in activities that could provide ‘context’ to the rotunda and documents through ‘dance or performance art in the space that invites [a] dialogue about the ways that the United States has mythologized the founding era.’”

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