The Importance of Accountability in Speech & Debate

Athena Tian | 1/1/23

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” - James Madison, Founding Father and Father of the Constitution, writer of Constitution of the United States and Bill of Rights.

Speech and debate wouldn’t be the creativity-filled and constantly-evolving community that it is today if men were angels. It is the unique characters, desires, backgrounds, styles, and personalities which lay the foundation of the world of competitive forensics which has given an outlet of expression and a joyous activity to thrive for millions of students nationwide (1).

Yet with every blessing comes a curse, and due to the wide range of members that pass through speech and debate during their middle, high school, judging, or coaching careers, governance is inevitably necessary at every level of organization, and thus governing members and power figures are ubiquitously present and exist in various forms at each event affiliated with speech and debate, from schoolwide gatherings to national tournaments consisting of thousands of students (2), isolated online zoom-calls to bustling hotel and university campus sites, and team captains to tab staff and parliamentarians at tournaments, in the best case scenario, governing figures allow speech and debate students to focus on their forthcoming round and personal priorities rather than the complicated mechanisms behind hosting a successful forensics event. However, in a more unfortunate scenario, such governing figures and laws are necessary for another purpose: to prevent violations of the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) universal Code of Honor (3), when inspiring and educational activities from unintentionally transforming into toxic spaces which fail to create a healthy and welcoming environment for each individual involved.

The angels which Madison idealized and the exemplary students within the NSDA Honor Society have endured along their way, those who are less than angelic, or those who are less than worthy of recognition and awards for their positive contributions to the speech and debate community. While a major percentage of each racial identification has been discriminated against for the apparent color of their skin (4), acts of violence are repetitively enacted on the basis of another’s sexuality or gender identification (5), and some the most heavily viewed and thunderously applauded videos on the official NSDA Youtube Channel (6) being Ella Snake's poignant address regarding the relentless sexism which saturates each level and aspect of speech and debate (7), and Savannah Brown’s harrowing recount of perpetual objectification and prejudice (8), it remains evident that while such exemplary figures seldom find their way to the final rounds on the glorious national stage, they continue to not only exist, but leave a lasting impression on each individual who has the misfortune of having their experience in speech and debate impaired by misplaced and unnecessary hatred.

Luckily, governance and regulation is outlined clearly by the NSDA and each individual tournament and team’s by-laws which prohibit and limit inappropriate behavior, in an attempt to preserve speech and debate as a space which welcomes all and evaluates participants on the basis of skill presented on the competition floor on a particular occasion, rather than predetermined perceptions that may be formed due to their identity, school affiliation, appearance, past records, personal beliefs, or other factors which do not relate to the competence of their presentation.

The prestigious Academic All American Award, boasted by less than 2% of all NSDA Honor Society Members, mandates that coaches write a statement which should “attest to the student’s character and demonstrate why they are deserving of this award” (9). Protest forms and procedures are readily available for any tournament at which ethics and fairness of evidence use appear uncertain (10). Congressional Debate manuals specifically outline the parliamentary procedure which a presiding officer must follow should a member of their chamber directly pose a threat to the NSDA Code of Honor or safe haven that forensics aims to provide: “The PO does not hesitate to rule abusive or inappropriate motions out of order. Member out of order (serious offense): ‘the member is out of order and will be seated’” (11). Recipients of the District Student of the Year award - and thus William Woods Tate Jr. National Student of the Year award finalists - are explicitly expected to “best represent the tenets of the Association’s Code of Honor: humility, equity, integrity, respect, leadership, and service” (12).

Despite such attempts to keep community members in check while interacting with others involved in speech and debate, why do participants continue to feel the burden and threat of discrimination, inequality, violence, prejudice, and inappropriate discussion of sensitive topics?

The primary reason is that inherently, a level of human bias and emotion is involved with the adjudication and determining of results in competitive speech and debate, and coaches and students therefore encourage such inappropriate mentions at all costs if they conceive it to be more effective than an opponent’s argument or script. Additionally, the competitive nature and small world which exists in forensics - especially on a local circuit where few schools and judges are the foundation for regional events - discourages community members from holding each other accountable for offensive usage of their voice and platform out of fear that retaliation could hurt their student or school’s reputation and bring punishment in the form of harsher ranks and bias in judging.

Yet despite the existence of such pillars which are plastered across each corner of NSDA-endorsed resources and guidelines of respect which are outlined in the rulebooks for each tournament, competitive circuit, and schoolwide team, presiding officers, judges, coaches, and captains repeatedly allow emerging students and keystone members of their community to avoid accountability for disrespectful conduct. Much of this fallacy is due to the unfortunately widespread assumption that competitors - especially those who have earned their spot in elimination rounds and esteemed tournaments - understand boundaries of argumentation and disagreement, even in emotionally-driven times of hyper competitiveness, desperation, and stress.

While such a level of composure may hold true for a significant portion of competitors, establishing standards and making clear indications and usage of rules is imperative in order to properly educate more inexperienced competitors regarding standards of respect and accountability and to demonstrate solidarity with community members who become victims of such insensitivity and personal attacks. Without immediate and straightforward gestures of non-tolerance for aggression, discrimination, and personal attacks in competition, the future of forensics remains susceptible to becoming an increasingly unattractive and unpleasant experience for prospective participants.

Though the NSDA as well as other competitive circuits and events clearly outline the proper procedure in the event of misconduct or disrespectful behavior in forensics, inevitably, the busy and haste younger generation is well understood to ignore the margins, fine print, terms and conditions, and depths of guideline manuals (13). In a self-destructive cycle, when coaches, captains, and more experienced competitors lack an understanding or knowledge regarding the existence of such procedures and guidelines, their less experienced counterparts, who learn primarily from observing and studying the techniques of their elders, automatically fail to understand the steps which should be taken in case a situation of inappropriate conduct or hate speech arises at any point during their speech and debate journey. Therefore, the governing bodies of speech and debate, on a national, statewide, and regional level, must straighten their priorities and understand that creating a safe and equitable environment is more indispensable to the vitality and integrity of the community than formalities and round-winning techniques. For this purpose, procedures such as “the presiding officer rules this speech/question out of order” should be placed at a more visible and accessible place in rulebooks relative to a detailed explanation of the difference between a “point of inquiry” and a “point of personal privilege.” Additionally, the generously provided official guide for each NSDA-sponsored event must contain a distinct section which explains (a) the boundaries of what can and cannot be tolerated in presentation, conduct, and interaction with judges and (b) the steps which are to be taken by judges, competition staff, or parliamentarians in the case that a violation of the aforementioned regulations occurs during a competitive event.

Lastly, competitors themselves of all levels, backgrounds, and events, should take advantage of policies which exist in order to protect their community. Though not every member is inherently or directly affected by an event of disintegrity or discrimination which occurs in forensics, they stand to benefit in the long term by aiding in creating a more welcoming and equitable space for all members. In the presence of competitions, students, coaches, and judges should be conscious of not only how they may increase their chances of breaking to the next round, earning the highest ranks and speaker points, or outduelling their opponent, but also of evidence of unregulated inequity, aggression, threats, or inappropriate speech which may arise - and the opportunity to call their peers out on such wrongdoing in an attempt to ultimately make speech and debate a platform, and also a safe space, for each and every individual and group involved.