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The National Archives Doctored A Women’s March Photo Critical of Trump. We’re Demanding Answers.

Altering the photo — and thereby rewriting history — was nothing less than Orwellian.
Louise Melling,
Deputy Legal Director and Director of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Center for Liberty,
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January 22, 2020

“God hates Trump.” 

“If my vagina could shoot bullets, it’d be less REGULATED.” 

Trump & GOP – Hands Off.”

“This pussy grabs back.”

Last week, the Washington Post revealed that the National Archives — the government body charged with documenting and preserving records — had doctored four protest signs in a photograph of the 2017 Women’s March. The photo was displayed as part of an exhibit, “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote.” The signs had the slogans referenced above. The words crossed out were blurred. 

Doctoring the photo was nothing less than Orwellian. Instead of documenting history, the National Archives had altered history to mask criticism of the president and erase our bodies. We’re demanding answers.

The photo the National Archives doctored was of a protest about the country’s, and the president’s, treatment of women. The National Archives decided our protest was too controversial, and therefore unmentionable.

The signs used the word “pussy” because the president himself notoriously said it. But when we talk about our own bodies, all too often we are shamed, punished, or outright banned from speaking. Just a few years ago, Lisa Brown, a Michigan legislator, was found to have violated the legislature’s rules of decorum when, during a heated abortion debate, she said, “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.’”  Instagram didn't allow photos of breastfeeding until 2014. Ads for post-partum health care and menstrual products have faced resistance in recent years because they speak of vaginas or periods.

The hypocrisy of altering a photograph to avoid controversy of the president’s own making rightly put the agency at the center of a political storm.

The National Archives initially defended its action, saying it blurred references to the president’s name and our bodies “so as not to engage in current political controversy” and to avoid content that might be inappropriate for young visitors. The agency was honest about its aims — to change history to suit its own, more comfortable, narrative.

Faced with an outpouring of criticism, the agency later apologized in a statement, saying it was a “mistake” to alter the images. But a mistake is tripping and spilling coffee on the photo. Blurring signs critical of Trump or referencing women’s bodies is a deliberate act — an apology alone won’t cut it.

In a Freedom of Information Act request filed today, we’re demanding the National Archives release all records answering for how this happened, who ordered the decision to alter the photo, and what guidelines they used to inform the decision. Perhaps most importantly, the agency needs to tell the public what other photos, if any, have been altered.

As the National Archives astutely observes in its mission statement, “Public access to government records strengthens democracy by allowing Americans to claim their rights of citizenship, hold their government accountable, and understand their history so they can participate more effectively in their government.”

Controversy is central to a robust democracy. If we begin to let the government rewrite history to make it more comfortable or less controversial, we set ourselves on a destructive path.

The National Archives has compromised the public’s trust that it will faithfully execute its thankless yet critical task of documenting and preserving history. As a first step to restoring that trust, the National Archives must be fully transparent and make public all records concerning its troubling decision to rewrite history. We can’t — and won’t — rest until it does.

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