Guiding Principles on Taking a Public Stance

AHA Council, March 2007

At its meeting on January 7, 2007, the Council of the American Historical Association approved the following statement, prepared by the Professional Division.

The constitution of the American Historical Association (AHA) states that "Its object shall be the promotion of historical studies through the encouragement of research, teaching, and publication; the collection and preservation of historical documents and artifacts; the dissemination of historical records and information; the broadening of historical knowledge among the general public; and the pursuit of kindred activities in the interest of history." In a wide range of situations, most of which have to do with the rights and careers of individuals, considered as historians, the AHA has the right to take public stands in defense of these objectives:

When public or private authorities, in the United States or elsewhere, threaten the preservation of or free access to historical sources. At least since the time of the time of Tacitus, historians have worried that states can and will poison the wells of historical research by suppressing vital documents or supporting the spread of misleading information. As the forms of historical research, scholarship and teaching become more varied, and as the forms of document that historians depend on become more and more varied, it seems certain that these concerns will continue to arise, and that the AHA will have to confront an increasing variety of problems in this realm. In particular, the AHA should stand ready if political or commercial concerns threaten the professional administration of an archive, historical society or other institution that has custody of sources.

When public or private authorities, in the United States or elsewhere, censor the writing, exhibition or teaching of history. The AHA should stand ready to defend all historians against efforts to limit their freedom of expression.

When public or private authorities, in the United States or elsewhere, limit or forbid freedom of movement to historians. The AHA should defend the rights of American historians to travel to all foreign countries in order to study, teach, pursue research, or simply carry on discussions with other historians, and the rights of historians from foreign countries to study, teach, pursue research or carry on discussions with historians in the United States.

When public authorities or private entities attempt to compromise the mission of historical assets. The AHA should insist that all students and researchers, whether or not they are affiliated with particular institutions, have equal access to sites, documents, films, recordings and other historical materials in the possession of federal, state and local archives. It should also contest efforts to give preference to private entities in using and profiting from the merchandising of sites or materials.

In addition, the AHA should stand ready to support its sister organizations in defending the rights of scholars from all fields to have access to information, freedom of expression and freedom to travel inside and outside the United States. From the standpoint of most members, this is probably a secondary area for AHA intervention, but joint and supporting statements by the President, the Director, and the Council can and should be made in these circumstances as well.

In all cases, the facts should be established, to the extent that is possible, before a public statement is drafted-much less circulated. Consultation with all members of Council has proved an effective way to gain information rapidly in the past and should continue to be the normal practice.