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Standards:Public Forum Debates

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Public Forum Debate offers students a unique opportunity to develop on-their-feet critical thinking skills by situating them in contexts not unlike US political (radio and TV) talk shows. Public Forum debaters must anticipate numerous contingencies in planning their cases, and must learn to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances as discussions progress.

Public Forum's open-ended cross-examination format encourages the development of unique rhetorical strategies. Public Forum debates should be transparent to lay audiences while providing students with real-world public speaking skills through the discussion of contentious ideas.

Public Forum Debate Rules

The purpose of these rules is to define the goals and procedures of Public Forum Debate such that all participants will enter into debates sharing a common set of expectations. These rules are framed in ways that attempt to allow for degrees of freedom in regard to debaters' creativity.

These are the only rules for Public Forum Debate. Judges are not allowed to impose additional rules on debaters. Because these rules focus on the goals and procedures of debate, they do not include all that might be considered principles of effective debate from a strategic perspective. Principles of effective debate are important to Public Forum Debate but, are not a part of the rules and should not be enforced as rules.

Charges of violations of any rules other sections should be taken to the Tournament Director. In the case of serious violations of these rules, the Tournament Director, or a committee designated by the Tournament Director, may impose penalties ranging from reprimand to changing a decision or altering speaker points to withdrawal of a team or judge from the tournament.

A tournament director can make minor changes to these rules by obtaining the approval of the IDEA Accreditation Committee and by informing participants of the changes in advance of the tournament. To gain approval of the IDEA Accreditation Committee, the Tournament Director must submit the changes to the IDEA Accreditation Committee at least one month prior to the beginning of the tournament. The Accreditation Committee will then approve or disapprove these changes within a week. After the Tournament Director obtains approval of the changes from the Accreditation Committee, all participants must be informed of the changes.

Motions and Preparation

Generally, motions in Public Forum Debate are abstract statements of policy that also involve a value claim; past topics have included 'The death penalty should be abolished' and 'The use of cell phones while driving should be forbidden'.

Research, which is primarily the job of the debaters, is encouraged. Teachers and coaches should not conduct research for debaters.

Interpretation of the Resolution

Two teams make up a Public Forum debate, one taking the affirmative position, the other arguing the negative. The guidelines for arguing these positions are as follows:

1. Arguing a Case for the Resolution

The affirmative team has the opportunity to interpret and define the resolution, and has the responsibility to interpret the resolution as it would reasonably be interpreted in the public sphere. The affirmative team is not required to provide a literal interpretation of the resolution, but may instead choose to create a metaphorical interpretation of the resolution. The reasonability of the affirmative team's interpretation of the resolution is a matter that can be argued from debate to debate.

2. Arguing Against the Resolution

Assuming that the affirmative team's interpretation of the resolution is acceptable, the objective of the negative team's efforts is to refute the arguments offered by the affirmative team and/or to offer its own arguments against the stance taken by the affirmative team.

The negative team may challenge any aspect of the affirmative team's case. For instance, it may challenge the interpretation of the motion (if it is unreasonable), the factual and analytical foundations of the proposition's case, the underlying assumptions of the proposition team's claims, or any costs associated with the affirmative team's arguments.

Rules During the Debate

1. In-Round Research is Prohibited

Research on the topic must be completed prior to the beginning of an actual debate. Once the debate begins, the debaters may not conduct research via electronic or other means. No outside person can conduct research during the debate and provide it directly or indirectly to the debaters. The use of a dictionary to determine the meaning of English words that the debater may not understand should not be construed as a violation of this rule.

2. Citations

Debaters may refer to or cite any public information. When debaters cite information, they should be prepared to provide complete documentation of the source to the opposing team and to the judge on request. A team's documentation of cited material must be complete enough that the opposing team and the judge can independently locate the information. Ordinarily, such documentation would include the name of an author (if any), the name and date of a publication, the URL of a website (if the information was retrieved electronically), and a page number (if any exists.)

3. Plans

Plans and counter-plans are explicity forbidden in Public Forum. The Pro team must focus on the resolution, ans not on a plan. Likewise, the Con must negate the Pro: not propose an alternative. This rule is meant to keep Public Forum ideologically seperate from policy, which the debate was sprung as a reaction from.

Public Forum Debate Format

A. In Public Forum Debate, each of two sides (Team A and Team B) has an equal amount of time to present their arguments.

1. The format is composed of eleven parts, each of which has a defined purpose and a set of rules.

Eight of these sections consist of speeches - that is, presentations by a designated speaker. The remaining three sections consist of crossfires. These open-ended discussions are similar to cross examination except that the roles of the individual questioning and the individual answering are not pre-assigned to either team, save for an introductory question.

2. The format of a Public Forum Debate is as follows ' note that 'Team A' and 'Team B' can stand for either an Affirmative or a Negative depending on the outcome of the initial coin-toss:

  • Team A First Speech 4 minutes Team A First Speaker
  • Team B First Speech 4 minutes Team B First Speaker
  • Crossfire 3 minutes Team A First Speaker leads by questioning Team B First Speaker, then floor is open.
  • Team A Second Speech 4 minutes Team A Second Speaker
  • Team B Second Speech 4 minutes Team B Second Speaker
  • Crossfire 3 minutes Team A Second Speaker leads by questioning Team B Second Speaker, then floor is open.
  • Team A Summary 4 minutes Team A First Speaker
  • Team B Summary 4 minutes Team B First Speaker
  • Grand Crossfire 3 minutes All four debaters, the floor is open.
  • Team A Final Focus 1 minute Team A Second Speaker
  • Team B Final Focus 1 minute Team B Second Speaker

3. Each debate also includes four minutes of preparation time ' two minutes for each team. This time is not scheduled in any particular place in the sequence of sections, and is instead taken at the discretion of each team, in whatever amounts the team desires.


The First Two Speeches

In these two speeches, the first and second speakers should deliver their pre-prepared reasons for adoption or rejection of the topic. The second speaker may also respond to the most important arguments raised by the first speaker. In the first two speeches, speakers for both sides must be concerned with constructing and presenting a logical argument that draws on evidentiary support. This is the one time in the debate where specific preparation can be used as a tool of the debate.

Introduction to the issue

An overview of the issue is presented in a compelling introductory remark or by means of a quotation that alerts the judge to the importance of the topic.

Definition of terms.

Whenever a debate focuses upon an issue without support of a clarifying plan or value, the topic must have its own agreed-upon parameters or definitions.

Analysis of the issues

Traditionally, the analysis of three issues is considered sufficient. However, to be successful, each should ideally be an independent reason to vote for the topic.

Asserting relevance

Answering the question 'Why does this matter?' in closing provides reasons for the judge to care while focusing the entire speech in a short, memorable summary.

The Second Speeches

This speaker position for both sides has the burden of analyzing the opponents' position and explaining flaws in the ideas presented by the other team. The judge has an expectation that the two sides will clash. Clash may be in the form of line-by-line refutation of the opponent's position or could focus on the most "attackable" issues advanced by the other side. The suggested form for refuting the opponent's position is:

An introduction that links the 2nd speech to the 1st speech, probably with a story or quotation.

An overview of the issue to be discussed, including:

(1) A statement of what an opponent has said.

(2) An enumeration of reasons and/or proofs of why an opponent is wrong.

(3) An explanation of the consequences of the above for the topic.

A closing that solidifies all of a side's speeches.


In the summary, speakers should defend their case against their opponents attacks. This is much like a reverse Refutation; debaters

(1) State their point

(2) State their opponent's argument against the point

(3)State why this argument is wrong, flawed, inaccurate, etc.

Also, Summary speeches should extend and elaborate on points that were not refuted by the opponent.

Final Focus

In the Final Focus, speakers should select the issue or issues they feel have become crucial to the round. Moreover, they should explain how their side has won arguments related to those issues. The Final Focus should not be an attempt to explain all issues that have been raised, but rather offer sustained, persuasive commentary on a single issue or small number of issues of importance.

The Crossfire / Grand Crossfire

Public Forum Debate is unique insofar as that it does not include rigidly defined cross-examination periods in which one debater questions another. Rather, in Public Forum's 'crossfire' sequences, a debater who has just spoken confronts an opposing debater in a freewheeling discussion in which both participants can ask or answer questions as they see fit. However, the opposing debater is entitled to ask the first question.

In the Grand Crossfire, all four debaters can question each other.

The Role of the Judge

For universal protocols on judging any speech or debate event, please see Judge Accreditation Process and Standards. Note that these guidelines are not strict rules (by reference to which, for example, debaters may be penalized for a failure to comply), but rather suggestions as to what considerations a judge might want to bear in mind while formulating their decision.

Public Forum Debate was conceived as an activity that would make for easily accessible and entertaining debates that could take place before a community audience. Moreover, Public Forum debates should be capable of being judged by a community of people with little or no experience of the technicalities of debate. Though this does not mean that debaters should be penalized for complex argumentation, it does mean that nuances of policy concerns and the use of jargon are not decisive in securing a win.

Rather, Public Forum Debate should be decided in favor of the side that offered the most persuasive arguments in favor of their position. Style is a secondary concern; however, insofar as style affects persuasiveness, it should be taken into account. Judges should ask themselves, 'Which side did a better job convincing me of their arguments?' and then decide accordingly.

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