While the previous two installments of the “Bad Cards” series highlighted popular but low-quality impact cards, this is not the only way that awful evidence is used in high school debates. In the third edition of the series, the issue is not the credibility of the evidence’s author or the veracity of its content so much as the context in which it was written—a blog about a high school debate topic written by a part-time coach and former debater whose goal was to improve the quality of debates about the legal system, not produce evidence to be cited in contest rounds. Debaters should discontinue their use of this evidence—the “Harrison ‘05/’06” cards—on the grounds of both fairness and education.
While coaching part-time at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart on the 2005-2006 Civil Liberties topic, Lindsay Harrison maintained a blog called Legal Debate that discussed the intersection of debate argumentation and legal scholarship and theory. When announcing the blog’s creation in September of 2005, Harrison—a former champion debater at The Greenhill School and the University of Southern California and a rising star in the legal world—explained her motives in creating the site:
This blog intends to provide a forum for high school debaters debating this year’s Civil Liberties topic to engage in discussions with law professors about the topic. Many of the arguments that reoccur year after year in the debate community are areas where law professors have special expertise: federalism, presidential powers, separation of powers, the hollow hope, critical legal studies, etc.
My hope is that this forum functions as a site for clarification of debaters’ questions about the law, as well as a site for argument innovation.
In addition to posting a summary of her academic qualifications, Harrison included an explicit disclaimer about the citation of her blog as evidence in debates:
Disclaimer #2: I work occasionally as a judge and part-time, pre-round coach for Carrollton (School of the Sacred Heart). Nothing in this blog is available exclusively to Carrollton debaters, nor do any of my posts exist for the purpose of providing evidence for debaters.
Throughout the 2005-2006 season, Harrison posted articles discussing a broad range of legal topics. Despite Harrison’s disclaimer, debaters—thankful for the well-written and easily accessible application of legal concepts to debate arguments—began citing the Legal Debate blog as evidence in contest rounds. The most popular cards were those used to bolster the negative’s argument that court decisions link to the politics disadvantage; other popular cards included affirmative responses to the Hollow Hope disadvantage and to judicial process counterplans.
There was a certain degree of controversy about the practice of reading evidence from Legal Debate during the remainder of the season, but a firestorm did not erupt until the Supreme Court topic in college debate. In September of 2006, Harrison posted another disclaimer on her blog reiterating that it was not to be used as evidence in debates:
(2) To clarify, I do NOT intend that anything on this site be read as evidence in a debate. This site is merely meant to clarify certain legal questions for the debate community. In my opinion, evidence should be peer-edited, or at least edited by someone. Nothing on this site has been edited or checked by anyone else. I recommend that you do NOT use anything posted here in an actual debate.
Despite this disclaimer, college debaters continued to cite the “Harrison ‘05/’06” evidence. In March, Harrison posted a message to e-Debate disavowing this practice yet again:
It has come to my attention that teams are reading “evidence” from a debate blog that I ran last year when the high school topic was a legal one. I started the blog because, in judging debates on the topic, I was frustrated by what I saw as misunderstandings of the legal system by many in the debate community. I also was frustrated by a lack of creativity in devising arguments as a result of a lack of broad legal knowledge. I intended the blog both to educate and to generate new ideas for argumentation. I did NOT intend the blog to be used as evidence, especially not in college debates where I figured the community would recognize that none of my posts were peer-reviewed (or reviewed by anyone at all), none of my posts were backed up by specific research, and none of my posts would ever qualify as “legal scholarship.” In fact, I am merely giving people ideas for arguments and I do not necessarily advocate any of the ideas as my own – I consider evidence to be taken out of context if it says, “debaters should argue that bush would get credit” and folks read only the part suggesting “bush would get credit,” thereby attributing that idea to me.
When I found out that people were reading “Harrison 06” evidence from the blog as link cards on the court politics argument, I made an effort to end this. Whenever anyone read this evidence in front of me, I asked that they not do so in the future. I also posted something on the blog that I intended as a disclaimer for people not to read “evidence” from the blog.
I have been traveling internationally for several months and, upon my return, I found out that people have continued to read this evidence in debate rounds. Accordingly, I am now sending this to edebate in the hope that the community will recognize definitively that I do not want blog posts from my debate education blog to be read as “evidence” in rounds.
Please do not read evidence from my debate education blog in rounds. I consider it to be taken out of context. I hope that if people do read this evidence in rounds that judges will penalize those teams for reading evidence that the author considers out of context.
In addition to issuing this public statement on e-Debate, Harrison deleted all of the posts on the blog (with the exception of those cited in this article) and issued a final admonition about citing her blog in debates:
(3) I have discovered that people are citing posts made here as evidence in college debates, which was never my intent. Accordingly, I will be shutting this blog down and removing previous posts. Hopefully, this will put an end to the practice of citing this blog in debates.
This announcement spurred a vibrant discussion on e-Debate; a complete list of postings is available in the March 2007 archive. After the controversy died down, it seemed like the issue would finally be resolved: the posts had been taken down and there was general agreement that Harrison’s writing on Legal Debate should no longer be used as evidence in contest rounds.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS EVIDENCE
Fast forward to the 2009-2010 season and high school debaters are once again citing evidence from Legal Debate to support their arguments about the judicial branch. Since Harrison’s posts have been removed—and are not available from the Wayback Machine—it is clear that students are simply recycling cards from old backfiles without checking to make sure the original source still exists.
The citation of Legal Debate is almost certainly not nefarious: current high school seniors were in eighth grade when the Civil Liberties topic was being debated and it is highly unlikely that many of them were regularly perusing e-Debate at the end of their novice years (when the college controversy was at its peak).
In any case, however, the practice of reading cards from Harrison’s blog needs to stop. Even if the intentions of the author are discarded, the fact that the posts being cited are no longer available online is reason enough to discontinue their use. Were they to be reposted (either in the Wayback Machine or by an enterprising debater or coach who had saved local copies of the posts before they were removed), their use would still be in direct contravention of the author’s wishes. And even if that is not enough for some, the fact that the author indicted the credibility of her blog posts most certainly should be.
HOW TO ANSWER THIS EVIDENCE IN DEBATES
This should be an easy case to make for the team indicting the evidence: simply pointing out its context and the fact that it is no longer available online should be sufficient for the vast majority of judges. If the opposing team insists on defending the use of the evidence, reading a short card from Harrison should be enough to earn a decisive victory.
Disregard their Harrison evidence—
It’s from a blog post that is no longer available online and that was written by a debate coach to educate students about how best to make arguments about the judiciary, not to be cited as evidence. Harrison does not consider her posts to be credible evidence—the judge should not evaluate their card(s).
This is the third in a series of articles highlighting popular but poor-quality pieces of debate evidence. If you’d like to recommend a card for inclusion in this series, please leave a comment or contact the author.