Trigger Warnings Placed on America’s Founding Documents

By Megan Williams | September 9, 2021 | 3:02pm EDT
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

(CNS News) -- The National Archives and Records Administrations (NARA) now warns that all historical documents may contain “potentially harmful language” on their website’s catalog.

“The harmful language alert is not connected to any specific records, but appears at the top of the page while you are using the online National Archives Catalog,” the NARA media and communications staff told CNSNews.com by email.

(Screenshot, National Archives website)
(Screenshot, National Archives website)

NARA’s trigger warning is present above all documents -- including the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights -- on the Archives’ website and anytime a user is searching for or researching the catalog.

In a statement released in late July, NARA defines harmful content and addresses how their employees are addressing the problem of offensive language in documents.

“Harmful content” is described as anything that may:

  • 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.

Acknowledging the offensive nature of these documents, the NARA still stands by their mission to maintain and make government records available, but they will “seek to balance the preservation of this history with sensitivity to how these materials are presented to and perceived by users.”

(Screenshot, National Archives website)
(Screenshot, National Archives website)

Along with these trigger warnings, archivists are changing document descriptions to contain more respectful terms, researching the issue of institutional bias, and committing themselves to “diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.”

“In the past, the National Archives has not had standards or policies to help archivists avoid harmful language,” states the NARA, adding that it wants to diminish “exclusionary practices” that “prioritize one culture and/or group over another.”

(Screenshot, National Archives website)
(Screenshot, National Archives website)

Commenting on NARA’s actions, Haley Strack at the Federalist wrote, “This isn’t the first time the National Archives has catered to a leftist view of history. In June, the National Archives’ racism task force claimed that the Archives’ rotunda, which houses founding documents, is an example of “structural racism.” The task force also pushed to include trigger warnings around displays of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, which are all in the rotunda.”

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