Lincoln–Douglas debate: Wikis


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Lincoln–Douglas Debate (commonly abbreviated as LD Debate, or simply LD) is sometimes also called values debate because it traditionally places a heavy emphasis on logic, ethical values, and philosophy. It is a type of American high school one-on-one debate practiced in National Forensic League competitions, and widely used in related debate leagues such as the National Catholic Forensic League, National Educational Debate Association, the National Christian Forensics and Communication Association, the UIL, and their affiliated regional organizations. All but a few tournaments use the current NFL resolution. The Lincoln-Douglas Debate format is named for the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas because their debates were centered around slavery and the morals, values, and logic behind it.

In some schools, high school Speech & Debate is a for-credit class. Inter-school tournaments are held on weekends, but they are supplemental to the class and training for them is often curricular. In other areas, debate may be a school-sponsored team similar to football or basketball which has practice after school, rather than being part of the curriculum, or it may be organized as a club activity with very little involvement on the part of the school. Some dedicated debaters attend tournaments without any school support at all, though this is only an option if there is an active local/regional debate circuit or the debater has enough money to attend national tournaments.



LD was introduced by the NFL at the National Tournament in 1980, and has become a ubiquitous feature of high school debate tournaments since. Between the 1980-81 and the 1984-1985 season there were only three NFL LD resolutions per season (for January-February, March-April, and the National Tournament), but the 1985-1986 season saw the permanent addition of two more (September-October and November-December). The Tournament of Champions began holding an LD division in the 1985-1986 season as well, which was indicative of the activity's acceptance and crucial to its future success. LD was founded with the intent of being a distinct alternative to preexisting policy debate. The widely circulated story about its origin is that, when the contemporary sponsors of policy debate were invited to observe the final round of the 1979 National Tournament, they found that its structure, speed, and jargon rendered it incomprehensible. In order to maintain the sponsorship, the NFL introduced LD debate. Lincoln Douglas does not require vast amounts of statistics or other empirical data (though many claims made in a round often do demand or are strengthened by such real-world evidence); rather, it is premised on logical analysis and argumentation developed mainly by the individual debater and his/her coach, with an emphasis on rhetorical/persuasive skills. It also differs from policy in that the focus of LD is generally on values and more abstract philosophical principles. LD is often also debated at a conversational pace to differentiate it from policy. However, these are only generalities and not rules; debaters on the LD "national circuit" frequently speak at speeds comparable to policy debaters and also make extensive use of lengthy quotes/evidence called "cards".

For the first decade of its existence, there were many separate interpretations of what LD should be, with people fundamentally differing on what a case should read like, how debaters should advance arguments and address their opponents', and what criteria should be used to judge a round. However, in the late 80's and early 90's the value premise/value criterion/contentions case model (developed by Homewood High School coach Patricia Bailey and Vestavia Hills High School coach Marilee Dukes) achieved national acceptance and use, bringing a degree of standardization to cases and by extent the shape of the round. Though there remain several extremely different styles of debate and judges/coaches each have their own idea of what a good round looks like, they now all follow the same basic outline and an LD round in one part of the country would be at least recognizable to a debater with a different style in another part of the country.


Cases are logical syllogisms that attempt to prove the resolution true/false or the desirability/undesirability of a side. The typical (though not mandated) case is divided into a framework, which outlines the conditions for discussing the resolution, and contentions. The most essential part of the framework is the value structure, which is composed of an ultimate value (often called the value premise) that the case attempts to demonstrate the resolutional action achieves/is in accordance with, and a value criterion (also called the standard), which is a way to attain or quantify the nebulous value. In most modern NFL resolutions, the value is inherent in the resolution, e.g. "Resolved: A just government should provide health care to its citizens" or "Resolved: A victim’s deliberate use of deadly force is a just response to repeated domestic violence". In both cases, the value would be justice or some essentially identical variant because the resolution is asking whether taking a certain action would conform to that principle. Justice is by far the most common value due to its inclusion in many resolutions, though sometimes morality, social welfare, or other ones may be more suitable. The framework also may contain definitions for purposes of clarity and/or excluding certain lines of argumentation, and preemptions/"spikes" that attempt to preclude certain arguments that one's opponent is expected to make. A narrow definition can be a spike. The contention(s), of which this type of case must have at least one, links the resolution to the value structure. A proper contention necessarily has a claim, which summarizes the argument, at least one warrant, which is a reason the claim is true, and an impact, which explains the importance of the argument -- or specifically why this argument meets the value criterion.

For example, a negative case for the resolution "Resolved: A just society ought not use the death penalty as form of punishment" could have a value of justice, a value criterion of crime deterrence, and then contentions that demonstrate that the death penalty serves as a uniquely powerful deterrent (which would require statistical and possibly psychological evidence.) An affirmative case could have a value of justice, a criterion of respecting human worth, and contentions arguing that killing human beings is inhumane for any reason regardless of their actions. It could also argue that all presently available methods of execution are inhumane (lethal injection is believed to be physically painful and psychologically traumatizing, while hanging, electrocution, and gassing certainly are). The debaters would then argue whether practical crime deterrence or adherence to the principle of human worth is more important to justice, and if each other's contentions sufficiently meet even their own value criterion. (The value is not usually contested anymore, since both debaters generally share similar ones.)

Other, less frequently used case structures include the narrative, an anecdotal or non-fiction account designed to appeal to the judge's emotions with a framework explaining why emotional reaction is important; resolutional kritik, which argues that a fundamental assumption of the resolution is flawed/offensive and thus it can't/shouldn't be debated or proven true; and discourse kritik, which argues that the effects of an action one's opponent has taken during or in relation to the round should outweigh consideration of the resolution. An example of a common discourse kritik is a gendered language kritik, which could be used if an opponent's case has been written exclusively containing the male pronoun. Much more rare are the irony case and the major/minor premise case. All these types of cases are extremely controversial, and many judges, especially those unexperienced with debate or whom consider themselves to be "traditional", will simply refuse to evaluate them. The only type of case that is virtually universally accepted is the value/value criterion/contention structure, and even that has its detractors.

Recently, methods of winning the round have become prominent that cannot be classified as true cases, because they are used as a semi-independent part of or in addition to the case proper, and do not advocate an extensively developed position. These include the "a priori" or "prima facie" argument which attempt to demonstrate that the resolution is true/false outside of the typical syllogistic model, most commonly by collapsing it into a tautology or presenting some reason why it's nonsensical. "Theory" debate, which says that an opponent's argument or style of argumentation (e.g. talking too fast or interpreting the resolution in a certain way) is unfair or uneducational and explains why fairness or educational considerations supersedes the resolutional evaluation, has also proliferated. Like atypical cases, the merit of these types of arguments is heatedly contested.


The case and related argumentation are recorded by the judge and debater within the round on paper (usually either cardstock or a legal pad) or a computer spreadsheet through a form of specialized note-taking known as the "flow", which provides for easy reference to arguments and their interaction with other arguments. Because of the couple of different ways to flow, the fact that some judges refuse to do so at all because they believe it detracts from the persuasive element of the speech, and the fact lay judges don't know how to flow, a good debater must be skilled in several styles of speaking.

Debate rounds are typically judged by a coach or college student who participated in the event in the past. Experienced students are usually allowed to judge in the novice division. Elimination rounds are always adjudicated by an odd number (usually three) to prevent a tie.

In some regional or national circuit tournaments with multiple divisions, inexperienced judges are most commonly placed in the Novice division, while the Junior Varsity and Varsity divisions enjoy more experienced judges. Judges are assigned to a specific division based on their experience and some other criteria, and are only eligible to judge debaters within that division (a judge assigned to judge novices cannot judge varsity). This is known as a pool; each division has its own pool of judges. At most national circuit tournaments, the judges within the varsity pool are often ranked beforehand on their quality/experience as "A", "B", or "C" by the tournament director and committee or secret ballot of the coaches of every participating school. Higher quality judges are assigned to more crucial rounds; for example, "A" judges are found in outrounds and prelim rounds between debaters who have already lost two rounds, as a debater who loses three rounds loses the ability to advance to outrounds (called "clearing" or "breaking"). To minimize the effect and controversy of a poor decision, a "C" judge would be found in a round between two debaters who have no opportunity to clear, or who are already guaranteed to clear. Sometimes, of course, the number of judges with each ranking don't fit the number of rounds they should be assigned to, so if there are more down-2 rounds than "A" judges a "B" judge would be placed in one as well, or vice versa.

In addition, most national circuit tournaments provide each debater beforehand with a "strike sheet", which is a list of the judging pool for his or her division. He or she can select certain judges (usually up to 5, but the number varies from tournament to tournament) to "strike", or prevent from judging them under any circumstance. This is useful if there has been a conflict with a judge in the past and the neutrality of the judge is questionable, if a judge is believed to be prone to making erratic or unreasonable decisions, in order to maximize the experience level of judges once can receive (through striking parents), or to increase one's chances of receiving a judge favorable to one's position and style (e.g. striking judges who are known to be opposed to postmodernism or fast talking if one intends to run a case rooted in postmodernism and speak very quickly).

Other regional circuits more heavily emphasize the rhetorical skills required in front of inexperienced judges, and recruit "lay" judges from the community. These judges are typically concerned citizens or parents of debaters from the school hosting the tournament or a participating school. Some circuits require all LD judges for rounds above the novice level to meet training requirements. Another option is to use lay judges for the rounds, but offer them a brief training or tutorial beforehand to prepare and inform them about the nature of the debate.

Tournament Organization

Many tournaments offer two or three divisions of competition in LD: novice, intermediate, and advanced. Novice is exclusively for new debaters in their first year of competition, intermediate is for talented novices or debaters in their second year of competition, and advanced is for experienced debaters.

A typical one-day tournament holds three or four rounds. Each debater advocates each side an equal number of times or one side once more than the other, depending on whether the number of rounds is even or odd. Multi-day tournaments have five to eight preliminary rounds (usually abbreviated to "prelims") in which all debaters participate. The debaters with the best win/loss record from this set of rounds then advance (called "breaking" or "clearing") to a single-elimination stage of "outrounds" that determines the eventual champion. All debaters present have the hypothetical potential to "hit," or square off against, any other competitor in their field at the tournament, though if at all possible debaters are prohibited from hitting members of their own team and hitting someone they have previously hit earlier at the same tournament again. Similarly, judges who have already judged a debater are not supposed to judge him or her again in prelims. In contrast, a tournament in which each competitor must go against every other one is called a Round Robin. Round robins obviously tend to be very small, and specific participants are invited to attend. (They're invite only, though some can be applied for).

Most LD tournaments are "power matched" (also called "power paired" or just "powered"). In this system, after the first two rounds (often referred to as presets, as they're randomly paired beforehand), the pairings for the third round are decided on the basis that people with the same record (known as being in the same bracket) debate. For example, a 2-0 would hit another 2-0, a 1-1 would hit another 1-1, etc. Speaker points determine who hits who within each bracket (the 2-0 with the highest speaks of any 2-0 would hit the 2-0 with the lowest speaks, second-highest hits second-lowest, etc). After the third round, the debaters' cumulative records and speaks (rather than the results of their last round) place them in their brackets. Local tournaments sometimes use randomized brackets throughout their whole duration. In "elimination rounds" after the primary four to six (or even eight) preliminary rounds, the top "seed" will "hit" the lowest "seed." Seeding is determined first by preliminary round records and then by the amount of speaker points awarded by judges in preliminary rounds, with various tiebreakers (total number of opponent wins, speaker points after the highest and lowest given to each debater have been subtracted, judge variance, randomly assigned number, etc.) that follow if the statistics remain even.

Tournament Competition

Most high school debaters participate in local tournaments in their city or school district, and travel to other areas of the state occasionally. Hundreds of such tournaments are held each weekend at high schools throughout the United States during the debate season.

A relatively small subset (perhaps a few hundred) of high school debaters, mostly from elite public and private schools, travel around the country to tournaments on the "national circuit". The current seven largest and most prestigious/competitive national circuit tournaments are (in no particular order) the Glenbrooks, held at Glenbrook North and Glenbrook South High Schools in the Chicago suburbs, the Barkley Forum at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia; the Harvard Invitational at Harvard University in Boston, Mass; the California Invitational at UC Berkeley, the Greenhill Fall Classic hosted by the Greenhill School in Addison, Texas; the Heart of Texas Invitational at St. Mark's School in Dallas, Texas; and the Minneapple at Apple Valley High School in Minnesota (the Minneapple is exclusively LD, and is the largest LD-only tournament in the country). There are a few other prestigious national tournaments, such as the New York City Invitational at Bronx Science, that cap the number of debaters from each school and total number of schools allowed to enter to preserve competitive integrity, and because there might simply be not enough space available. National circuit tournaments are very large events that typically draw 120-200 varsity LD competitors, in addition to LDers in the novice and jv divisions, policy debaters, public forum debaters, speech participants, judges, coaches, etc. Some of the biggest attract near a thousand total participants. Regionally significant tournaments often also draw over a hundred participants. National circuit debate is generally characterized by its extremely fast manner of speaking (300 wpm is not considered an uncommon speed to read a case at), use of jargon, and emphasis on strength/depth of argumentation rather than rhetoric. However, some debaters have been successful on the national circuit without conforming to these conventions.

As the debate season comes to a close, national championship tournaments (collectively referred to as the postseason) are held to bring together the best debaters from around the nation to compete against one another. These tournaments require reaching certain levels of success at a qualifying tournaments throughout the season.

The unofficial national circuit championship is the Tournament of Champions (LD) (TOC) held at the University of Kentucky. To be eligible for the TOC, debaters must collect at least two bids at various designated tournaments held throughout the year. (They cannot be considered qualifying tournaments because they technically exist independent of TOC authority and are significant in their own right.) These tournaments are granted a certain number of bids by the director of the TOC (Prof. J.W. Patterson) with the input of his advisory committee that debaters receive upon reaching a certain level in the elimination rounds. The level of elimination round at which bids are awarded is subjective, but depends chiefly on the size of the tournament, the perceived collective quality of the debaters in attendance, and the quality of the tournament itself (whether it is run well or not). There are fluctuations in tournaments' bid levels and the tournaments that have bids in the first place, but the major tournaments have very secure bids. For example, the Southwest Championships held at Arizona State University is a medium-sized tournament attended by debaters of all experience levels from the surrounding states, and therefore only receives two bids, awarded to the debaters who reach the final round of the tournament. (The tournament lost its bid status prior to the 07-08 season. A full list of Bid tournaments for this season is available through many places, including here.) Conversely, the Glenbrooks tournament, considered the most competitive regular season tournament in the country, is attended by approximately 200 experienced debaters and has for many years had 16 bids to hand out to competitors who reach the octofinal round.

For non-national circuit debaters, either the National Speech and Debate Tournament of the National Forensic League or the Grand National Tournament of the National Catholic Forensic League is the national tournament of their sponsoring organization. Competitors qualify to these national tournaments by placing in the top spots at local district-level tournaments held specifically as qualifiers. The number of competitors in each district determines the number of competitors that will qualify to the national tournament. Most NFL districts have two to four, but some NCFL districts have six.


LD debate follows the basic time schedule 6-3-7-3-4-6-3. Each debater gets thirteen minutes of speaking time, and rounds take approximately 40 minutes. Each debater receives three to five minutes of preparation time (prep time) to use between speeches however they like. While the amount of prep time is at the tournament's discretion, the NFL advocated three minutes until midway through the 2006-2007 season, when it decided on four. Some tournaments, most notably the TOC, choose to give debaters 5 minutes. Some tournaments also allow the use of flex prep, which melds the cross-examination time and prep time together to create a 6-8 minute block that can be used for questions and/or prep.

Time (minutes) Abbreviation Speech Description
6 AC Affirmative Constructive The Affirmative reads a pre-written case
3 CX Cross Examination The Negative asks the Affirmative questions
7 NC (1NR) Negative Constructive (and first negative Rebuttal) The Negative (almost always) reads a pre-written case and (almost always) moves on to address the Affirmative's case
3 CX Cross Examination The Affirmative asks the Negative questions
4 1AR First Affirmative Rebuttal The Affirmative addresses both his/her opponent's case and his/her own. This speech is considered by many debaters to be the most difficult
6 NR (2NR) The Negative Rebuttal The Negative addresses the arguments of the previous speech and summarizes the round for the judge
3 2AR The Second Affirmative Rebuttal The Affirmative addresses the arguments of the previous speech and summarizes the round for the judge


NFL resolutions (topics to be debated) change every two months. They always propose that a specific policy or issue (the "resolutional policy/action") conforms to a certain principle (the "value"). The affirmative must uphold the resolution, and the negative must show that the action does not conform to the principle or that the affirmative has not shown how it does so (there are different schools of thought as to the negative's burden).

Ten possible resolutions for the upcoming year are chosen by a wording committee and released at the NFL National Tournament. Anybody can submit a resolution for consideration to the wording committee. Each coach in the country receives a ballot with a copy of the official magazine of the NFL, the Rostrum, and votes for a topic for each two-month slot (voting can also be done online). Until the 2007-2008 season each coach could only rank the topics one list, with the one receiving the overall highest ranking becoming the National Tournament one, the second highest becoming the March-April one, the third highest Jan/Feb, etc. However, because of the prominence of the Jan-Feb slot (the TOC and several other tournaments not actually in January or February elect to use this one, resulting in it being jokingly referred to as the "six-month topic"), coaches now select their three highest choices for each two-month slot.

The resolutions of the NCFL National Tournament, UIL, and NCFCA are selected independently of the NFL resolutions.

Recent resolutions include:

Resolved: Economic sanctions ought not be used to achieve foreign policy objectives. (January/February 2010)
Resolved: Public health concerns justify compulsory immunization. (November/December 2009)
Resolved: Public high school students in the United States ought not be required to pass standardized exit exams to graduate. (September/October 2009)
Resolved: Military conscription is unjust. (NFL Nationals 2009)
Resolved: When in conflict, the preservation of minority cultural values ought to be valued above the preservation of a unified national culture. (NCFL Nationals 2009)
Resolved: Vigilantism is justified when the government has failed to enforce the law. (March/April 2009)
Resolved: The United States ought to submit to the jurisdiction of an international court designed to prosecute crimes against humanity. (January/February 2009)
Resolved: In a democratic society, felons ought to retain the right to vote. (November/December 2008)
Resolved: It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people. (September/October 2008)
Resolved: Limiting economic inequality ought to be a more important social goal than maximizing economic freedom. (NFL Nationals 2008)
Resolved: That secondary education in America should value the fine arts over athletics. (NCFL Nationals 2008)
Resolved: Hate crime enhancements are unjust in the United States. (Mar.-Apr. 2008)
Resolved: It is just for the United States to use military force to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by nations that pose a military threat. (Jan.-Feb. 2008)
Resolved: In the United States, plea bargaining in exchange for testimony is unjust. (Nov.-Dec. 2007)
Resolved: A just society ought not use the death penalty as a form of punishment. (Sept.-Oct. 2007)
Resolved: On balance, violent revolution is a just response to political oppression. (NFL Nationals 2007)
Resolved: Judicial activism is unjust in a democracy. (NCFL Nationals 2007)
Resolved: The United Nations' obligation to protect global human rights ought to be valued above its obligation to respect national sovereignty. (Mar.-Apr. 2007)
Resolved: The actions of corporations ought to be held to the same moral standards as the actions of individuals. (Jan.-Feb. 2007)
Resolved: A victim’s deliberate use of deadly force is a just response to repeated domestic violence. (Nov.-Dec. 2006)
Resolved: A just government should provide health care to its citizens. (Sept.-Oct. 2006)
Resolved: In matters of collecting military intelligence, the ends justify the means. (NFL Nationals 2006)
Resolved: When in conflict, an individual's freedom of speech should be valued over a community's moral standards. (NCFL Nationals 2006)
Resolved: Juveniles charged with violent crimes should be tried and punished as adults. (Mar.-Apr. 2006)
Resolved: The use of the state’s power of eminent domain to promote private enterprise is unjust. (Jan.-Feb. 2006)
Resolved: Judicial activism is necessary to protect the rights of American citizens. (Nov.-Dec. 2005)
Resolved: In matters of U. S. immigration policy, restrictions on the rights of non-citizens are consistent with democratic ideals. (Sept.-Oct. 2005)

A complete listing of NFL resolutions can be found at the NFL website.

See also

External links

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