One month ago, James Fishback, a former debate champion, wrote a piece for us exposing how high school debate has been hijacked by political and ideological judges. The article went viral. Politicians on both sides of the aisle tweeted their shock at Fishback’s findings. Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz invited him to meet with them to discuss the problem.
Most importantly, more than a hundred coaches, debate parents, and debaters (both current and former) reached out to Fishback to share their own experiences, confirming that in high school debate, debate is no longer allowed. That number included people from inside the National Speech & Debate Association, the key institution Fishback investigated, who told him he didn’t know the half of it.
So we asked Fishback to dig deeper. Here’s what he found. — BW
Once upon a time, the National Speech & Debate Association, or NSDA, was the country’s premier debating organization, touching the lives of two million high school students across its nearly hundred-year history. Its famous alumni include Oprah Winfrey, and Supreme Court justices Neil Gorsuch and Ketanji Brown Jackson. The NSDA, formerly known as the National Forensics League, currently has 140,000 young debaters on its roster—but now, rather than teaching them to debate, it is teaching them to self-censor and conform their arguments to a new politically correct standard.
The NSDA has allowed hundreds of judges with explicit left-wing bias to infiltrate the organization. These judges proudly display their ideological leanings in statements—or “paradigms”—on a public database maintained by the NSDA called Tabroom, where they declare that debaters who argue in favor of capitalism, or Israel, or the police, will lose the rounds they’re judging.
This has fundamentally changed the culture of high school debate—or so scores of students are telling me. One of them is former high school debater Matthew Adelstein, a rising sophomore studying philosophy at the University of Michigan, who was a member of the NSDA in high school.
Adelstein told me that, in April 2022, he competed at the prestigious Tournament of Champions in Lexington, Kentucky, where he debated in favor of the federal government increasing its protection of water resources.
In his final round of the two-day tournament, Matthew was shocked to hear the opposing team levy a personal attack against him as their central argument. The opposing team argued: “This debate is more than just about the debate—it’s about protecting the individuals in the community from people who proliferate hatred and make this community unsafe.”
Then they pulled up a screenshot of a tweet from earlier that month, which Matthew had responded to.
The tweet read: “Name one thing that you, personally, feel is morally disgusting, but that you think, rationally, should be legal and accepted by society.” Matthew had replied: “Calling people racial or homophobic slurs.”
Suddenly, Matthew’s six-word tweet and an accompanying Discord message became the focus of the round, U.S. water policy be damned. You can read his opponents’ entire argument—a rambling 25-page treatise in a multi-font format with no real mention of U.S. water policy—here.
But what is most incredible is that this argument actually won Matthew’s opponents the round.
In his written decision, Judge Jacob Wilkus explained his reasoning for giving Matthew’s opponents the win. “A debate space where racist or violent people are not allowed is preferable to one where they are,” he wrote, adding that “the ballot has a transformative power to challenge white debate norms where it is okay to just let racist or violent activity slide.”
Matthew, who considers himself a progressive, told me he had misread the tweet, and thought it was prompting comments only on what “should be legal” not “accepted by society.” He had made a mistake. But that’s beside the point.
Wilkus, who has judged 488 debaters at dozens of tournaments, had allowed a personal attack to outweigh a reasonable argument between debaters.
What’s more, he sent a signal to all high school debaters that they can be penalized in a tournament on the basis of their personal conduct. (I reached out to Wilkus twice via email, asking him for comment, and did not receive a response.)
After hearing Matthew’s story, I looked deeper into the problem and found that some judges actually state outright they will punish debaters for comments or actions they’ve made outside the debate arena.
Zachary Reshovsky is one of these judges. His paradigm tells students, “I will consider indictments of an opponent on the basis that they have done [or] said something racist, gendered, [or] -phobic in their personal behavior. The indictment, however, needs to be clearly documented (e.g. a screen shotted Facebook post, an accusation with references to multiple witnesses who can corroborate the incident) and the offending violation/action needs to fall into the category of commonly understood violations of norms of basic decency surrounding race/gender. . . ”
He continues by stating that “microaggressions will be considered” even if “they are more difficult to prove/document.”
What defines a microaggression? The answer is broad. The University of Minnesota offers a two-page sheet listing scores of examples, including the phrases “America is a melting pot,” “There is only one race, the human race,” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”
These statements are hardly controversial, but for Reshovsky, they could be enough to torpedo a debater’s chances in the ring. What’s more, encouraging debaters to comb through competitors’ social media accounts in order to publicly shame them in a tournament is reprehensible.
It also begs the question: why would students subject themselves to high school debate if these are the consequences?
Steve DuBois, a high school teacher in Lenexa, Kansas, who has been an NSDA coach for 27 years, said he has noticed that a majority of high school debates now occur “within fairly narrow ideological parameters.”
“There’s the moderate left, there’s the far left, and that’s essentially the range in which debates occur,” DuBois told me. Students, he said, “are told that there are certain things that you shouldn’t say in debate rounds because they create an unwelcoming environment for people in the community.”
This obsession with safety conceals a disdain for anything the NSDA deems unsafe. Here is just one example of the problem DuBois noted that I found from a debate event online:
In this video, Quest Sandel, the tournament parliamentarian at the 2019 NSDA Nationals, urges students to refrain from using gendered language in the realm of debate:
“I don’t want to hear Mr. or Miss from anyone. That would be greatly appreciated, as we try to respect the differences of every single person here.”
When I asked Quest via email why he warned students not to refer to each other as Mr. or Miss, he told me his warning was in “direct alignment with the spirit of equity and inclusion that the NSDA promotes.”
The irony of the NSDA’s obsession with “safety” is that it actually fuels an atmosphere of fear among students—the fear that they will lose if they once said the wrong thing on Twitter or accidentally refer to their competitor as Miss. This fear is palpable. The NSDA debates—once a forum for the open exchange of ideas—have become a minefield of political correctness, says NSDA student Briana Whatley, 15, of Miramar, Florida.
“At NSDA tournaments I am not guaranteed a win based on my reasoning, facts, or delivery, rather if I can reinforce my judges’ ideology throughout the debate,” Whatley told me. “It’s antithetical to what true open debate is.”
In reporting my first piece about high school debate, I reached out to the NSDA for comment three times via email and three times via phone before it was published. Each time I was ignored.
But less than 48 hours after the story came out and stirred national outrage, the organization issued a statement on Twitter saying in part: “The NSDA prohibits all forms of discrimination, and we continue to provide training and resources to combat any behavior that is contrary to our policies and goals so that every member of our community feels included in an atmosphere of anti-bias.”
The NSDA did not announce that it would remove or even reprimand the ideological judges who punish students for what they say. In fact, just weeks later, the NSDA went ahead with its National Speech and Debate Tournament in Phoenix, Arizona, from June 11–16, and employed biased judges in several of its rounds.
John Hollihan, debate coach at Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School, judged three rounds at NSDA nationals. His paradigm tells students that “I am EXTREMELY skeptical of ‘capitalism good’ arguments. If you go for them, you better do a lot of analysis to convince me.”
Chaz Wyche, who judged the final round of middle school policy debate, states in his paradigm that “I reserve the right to end the debate due to anti-blackness.”
What does Wyche mean by “anti-blackness”? He did not respond to my request for comment, but his 2021 master’s thesis on the topic argues that “anti-blackness created the concept of policing” and that “police are a direct extension of the slave master.”
“To say that ‘All Lives Matter,’ ” he wrote in the thesis, “is to ignore the way that anti-blackness produces unequal life chances for Black people.”
Wyche, who has judged 1,192 debate students over his tenure, was given the honor of judging the final round of this month’s NSDA national championship.
Rich Kawolics, a recently retired debate coach who also judged June’s NSDA Nationals, tells students in his paradigm that “any argument or behavior that is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, ableist, or diminishes any person’s humanity because of their identity will earn you a loss.”
I agree with this. Any student attacking his or her peers because of their race, sex, disability, or identity is abhorrent and disqualifying. But Rich also says that arguments related to these ideas will “earn you a loss.”
What’s a “xenophobic” argument? Is it a student arguing that the U.S. must secure the southern border? And what exactly is a “transphobic” argument? Is it a student arguing that teenage girls cannot consent to double mastectomies?
When I asked Kawolics over email whether arguments like the one above were transphobic, he replied that he could not answer my specific question “outside the context of a debate round.”
When a judge’s “rules” have no definition, any student can be guilty of them.
At NSDA nationals, there were at least two dozen judges who warned students against “transphobia” in their paradigms. These ambiguous warnings instill fear in students about the arguments they can’t make. This fear drives self-censorship and eliminates certain viewpoints that need to be heard.
I wrote the piece for The Free Press because I care about high school debate. When I competed as a high schooler, it helped me overcome a stutter and gave me confidence. The censorship going on in debate today concerned me so deeply that, in 2019, I launched my own nonprofit called Incubate Debate, where I offer no-cost, free-speech debates for kids in my home state of Florida.
A few critics have pointed out that my piece was written out of self-interest. That all I was trying to do is publicize my own organization. And it’s true that since my first piece was published, hundreds of students have contacted Incubate Debate asking to compete in our tournaments, and more than 50 volunteers have reached out to me, offering to judge our debates. These volunteers include former debaters, school superintendents, veterans, and even an assistant U.S. attorney.
I also admit I am a capitalist. I believe in competition in the free and fair marketplace. I would love nothing more than for the NSDA to return to its liberal roots of allowing the best argument to win—and to give my organization a run for its money. In the meantime, I would also love to see others like me, who care about high school debate, to start similar grassroots organizations in their own states.
Yes, I am self-interested. I love high school debate, and I want to preserve the tradition for other kids. I want them to experience the joy of hearing a diverse range of ideas, and to discuss those ideas freely without feeling fear, or the shame of saying the wrong thing.
Surely, this is what we want for all kids, even if they don’t aspire to become debate champions. And surely, it’s what we want for all of society, too.
Follow James Fishback on Twitter @j_fishback. Send us tips about your experience with high school debate at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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