To Dr. Marlin Bates, Director of the Jon Schamber Invitational:
Parliamentary debate is far and away one of the most educational activities that we, as high school students, have the pleasure and privilege to participate in. We are grateful for the opportunities for learning and discovery that it provides every individual who comes in contact with this unique event. But in addition to being aspiring policymakers, we fill another role. As an open-minded and forward-thinking community, we pride ourselves on our commitment to inclusiveness, and on respectful argumentation which enhances our understanding of critical issues.
You have recently released the topic areas for the 2014 Jon Schamber Invitational. The fifth topic area revolves around the case of DeBoer v. Snyder, which examines the legal right of a lesbian couple to adopt children. Although some arguments might be made under rational-basis review, since many debaters might not put the time necessary into researching and understanding the complex mechanisms of the Supreme Court, the vast majority of rounds on this topic would focus on the broader issue of marriage equality, which lies at the core of the case. Moreover, some schools -- i.e. new teams, those without a coach, or even those with a less connected coach -- might not have access to or knowledge of the topic areas released, nor the resources to prepare for them, making the resolution release a complete and confusing surprise. There are many valid and educational discussions to be held on this subject, but those discussions should not take place on the high school debate circuit.
While debate rounds exist separately from the real world, and we are constantly called upon to argue points which go against our own beliefs, it is unfair to call upon anyone to argue against their deepest values, on either side of this issue. In parliamentary debate, both sides of a resolution are supposed to be given equal ‘ground’, that the debaters may have a fair and exciting educational experience. The fundamental problem in this instance, then, lies in the fact that the use of this topic in a debate round forces debaters to either a) concede, or b) rely on less than concrete evidence to support their claims, defeating the purpose of educational debate, and detracting from the overwhelmingly positive real-world impacts of our community.
Many debaters possess fervent beliefs that would inspire them to argue wholeheartedly for or against LGBTQ rights. By opening up this extremely divisive issue for debate, the tournament would court and cultivate the potential for students to launch ad hominem attacks against others. This extends the issue into the separate arena of personal offense. While many debaters are, of course, capable of handling difficult topics in a sensitive and respectful manner, it is essential to recognize that not all can do so, and those debaters without a strong grasp on the delicacies of the issue of same-sex marriage might accidentally yet distinctly offend. With any resolution, at any tournament, there is a possibility for offensive rhetoric; however, topics such as this one are uniquely suited to devolve into personal conflicts outside the scope of the debate itself.
Furthermore, the issue of natural judge bias, which looms omnipresent in debate, will undoubtedly play a large role in determining the outcome of any round on this issue. We implore our judges to adjudicate based solely on the arguments made by the debaters in front of them, but an issue like this, inherently tied to deeply held beliefs of right and wrong, forces even the most impartial judge to tinge their decision with personal convictions.
Perhaps this resolution was written to allow debaters the chance to discuss the decision-making of the Supreme Court on a single, specific issue - but that chance threatens to be dragged into the larger morass of marriage equality. Since the workings of the Supreme Court are extremely complicated and difficult to understand without a scholarly introduction to court precedents, precedings, et al., many debaters might resort to the dangerous types of argumentation from which the many issues which we here discuss arise.
That is not to say that there is no educational value to be found in discourse on Supreme Court cases. To that end, we believe there are a number of alternate Supreme Court cases that would offer very high quality debates without any potential for offense: Heien v. North Carolina, on the justification of traffic stops; Yates v. United States, on the right of an entity to destroy evidence under investigation; Elonis v. United States, on the liberty to make threatening statements under free speech doctrine; Department of Transportation v. Association of American Railroads, on federal division of power; or Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean, on the rights of whistleblowers.
We understand that this topic choice was most likely based in a beneficent desire to open people’s minds through debating such a polarizing issue, and that no offense was ever intended. We recognize that fact, and ask only that the aforementioned topic area be changed to something more conducive to an inclusive and educational round.
In a debate, it occasionally becomes necessary to examine our discursive implications- the effect that our rhetoric has on real people outside the round when the debate is over. This is that time; when those words become especially poignant, and we must all work together to ensure the continuation of parliamentary debate as a force for positive change in the world.
Audrey von Raesfeld