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Parliamentary Debate: History and Resources

An Early History of the NPDA

Reported by Prof. Emeritus Al Johnson, the Colorado College

with assistance from Prof. Steven Johnson, University of Alaska-Anchorage

and Dr. Robert Trapp, Willamette University

Parliamentary debate began in the Rocky Mountain Region in the Fall of 1991 with discussions between Major Gwendolyn Fayne, Director of Forensics at the U. S. Air Force Academy, and Al Johnson, Director of Forensics at The Colorado College. Al was concerned that the changes in CEDA had made it almost impossible for bright students with little, or no, experience in debate to compete. While Gwen had some of the same concerns, she liked parliamentary debate and was anxious to see it offered the region. Although some Western schools including the Air Force Academy, The Claremont Colleges, and Central Missouri State University had attended some APDA tournaments and some had attended Worlds, parliamentary debate was not offered at any tournaments in the Western United States. Colorado College and the Air Force Academy have always had a close relationship as the two schools are only twelve miles apart and Gwen and Al talked frequently on the phone about forensic concerns. When Al talked to her about his the lack of opportunity for inexperienced students, she suggested parliamentary debate might provide that opportunity.

Major Fayne agreed to offer a division of parliamentary debate at her November tournament and Al agreed to call some local schools and urge them to enter teams. Eighteen teams entered the division and to say it was loosely run would be an overstatement. The number of judges ranged from one to three in rounds and topics were made up just prior to a round. Although some coaches (apparently including Steve Johnson, then a graduate assistant at Colorado State University) were conned into judging, the majority of the critics were students who were entered only in individual events.

Two other tournaments offered parliamentary debate during the school year 1991-1992 with entries running around fifteen to twenty teams. Gwen and Al decided to offer a "Rocky Mountain Championship" in March of 1992, but also made it a last chance for NIET legs tournament in order to insure participation. Twenty-five teams entered and competed in six preliminary rounds plus elimination rounds beginning with quarter finals. A team from Regis won that first tournament.

At a coaches meeting at that tournament a loosely knit organization was formed and named The Western States Parliamentary Debate Association. Steven C. Combs of The Claremont Colleges was elected President; Gwendolyn Fayne was elected Executive Secretary and Editor of the Journal, and Al Johnson was elected Treasurer, even though the organization had no funds at that time. Steve Johnson, who was leaving Colorado State to become Director of Forensics at Creighton University in the Fall, agreed to work on a constitution.

At the end of the school year 1991-1992 the organization lost most of its leadership as Steve Combs left Claremont to work on his PhD and Gwen Fayne was transferred to Alabama. She did, however, publish the first Journal in the Fall of 1992 from her home in Montgomery, Alabama, and Steve Johnson completed a draft of the Constitution which called for Fall and Spring Championships to be held each year. The Fall Championship was scheduled in conjunction with the November Air Force Tournament and the Spring Championship was scheduled in conjunction with the Regis University Tournament in February of 1993.

During the school year 1992-1993 most Rocky Mountain tournaments offered a division of parliamentary debate and all were successful attracting fifteen to thirty-five teams. Al Johnson planned to attend the October tournament at the University of Puget Sound and he and Greg Young were asked to conduct a seminar on Parliamentary Debate. Greg had been Director of Forensics at Colorado State University the previous three years and during 1992-1993 he was replacing Steve Hunt as Director of Forensics at Lewis and Clark.

The seminar was well attended by students and coaches and all expressed a real interest in doing something in Parliamentary Debate. Brenda Marshall, Director of Forensics at Linfield College had a tournament coming up in just three weeks and she agreed to offer Parliamentary Debate. She expressed doubt that anyone would enter teams even though several coaches agreed to do so. She was pleasantly surprised to draw more than 30 teams and Parliamentary Debate began in the Pacific Northwest.

Al persuaded Tim Browning, the Tournament Director of Western States, to offer a single division at the February tournament in San Jose. The division had an excellent draw and Robert Trapp and Al conned a number of California judges into hearing rounds. Most were reluctant at first, but many asked to judge at least one more round. Some interest in Parliamentary Debate was thus generated in California.

At the coaches meeting at the Regis tournament, several changes occurred. The organization was renamed the National Parliamentary Debate Association and it was agreed to hold a single tournament the following Spring. This tournament was originally titled "National" but has since been changed to "Championship". Steve Johnson was elected (not self appointed) President; Susan Epstein, Director of Forensics at the University of Southern Colorado, was elected Executive Secretary; Gwen Fayne was asked to continue as Editor of the Journal; and Al Johnson was re-elected as Treasurer. Although she was still living in Alabama, Gwen produced two more Journals before formally leaving NPDA.

During the school year 1993-1994 Steve Johnson and Al Johnson put together the first National Tournament which was held during March of 1994. The organization had a few members, but Steve used the AFA mailing list to attempt to draw more teams. Fifty-two teams from twenty-six schools attended that first tournament. Marcus Paroske and Tammy Schultz of Regis University defeated Andrea Roth and Rob Stone of the University of New Mexico in the final round with Andrea taking the honors as top speaker.

The schools attending in 1994 were Bethel College (Kansas); Black Hills State University; California State University at Northridge; Colorado State University; Concordia College (now Concordia University); Creighton University; Eastern New Mexico University; Front Range Community College; Hillsdale College; Metropolitan State College; Northern Arizona University; Oregon State University; Red Rocks Community College; Regis University; Rice University; The Claremont Colleges; The Colorado College; U. S. Air Force Academy; University of Colorado; University of LaVerne; University of Nebraska; University of New Mexico; University of Southern Colorado; University of Wyoming; Wichita State University; and Willamette University.

Gary Holbrook of Metropolitan State College attended as President of the Friends of the Irish Debate Series. Gary sponsored the Irish Debate Teams United States visit for eighteen years prior to stepping down in 1997. He suggested that the National Parliamentary Championship Tournament would be a logical place for an exhibition debate. The organization agreed and when Robert Trapp's offer to host the 1995 tournament was accepted, Gary agreed to bring the Irish team to Salem. When Gary stepped down in the Spring of 1997, the NPDA agreed to act as sponsor of the Irish teams U. S. tour. The Irish National Team has been present at every tournament beginning with Willamette in 1995.

No one could have predicted the rapid growth of the National Parliamentary Debate Association with the Championship Tournament growing every year from the 52 teams in 1994 to more than two hundred at the present time with some teams being turned away. After CEDA was founded, it was several years before any tournament attracted enough teams to offer even quarterfinals.

Several people deserve credit for the established and growth of the organization. Parliamentary Debate would never have gotten started if it had not been for the knowledge and determination of Gwendolyn Fayne. Major Fayne not only offered the event at her tournament but was instrumental in co-hosting that first "Championship Tournament" in the Spring of 1992. Gwen gave the organization some credibility by publishing three Journals. Sadly, her participation was cut short by her transfer from the Air Force Academy.

Al Johnson deserves credit for having the experience and the contacts to not only persuade local tournaments in the Rocky Mountain Region to offer divisions of Parliamentary Debate and later to do the same in the Pacific Northwest. Without these efforts Parliamentary might never had lasted beyond that first Air Force Tournament in 1991.

Steve Johnson should be give lots of kudos for "formalizing" the organization. First as a volunteer and later as President, Steve was tireless in his efforts to give WSPDA and then NPDA formal organization and credibility. The first "Championship Tournament" in 1994 might never have occurred without Steve's input and certainly would not have been nearly as successful. After his two year term Steve turned a solid and growing organization over to the next President, Robert Trapp.

Robert Trapp was exactly the right person to make the NPDA into a large, well run, national organization. His quiet demeanor and his outstanding ability were just what was needed. He was willing to make decisions to push the organization forward, even if some might be unpopular. When some officers failed in their responsibility, he quietly tried to solve the problem without trying to lay any blame.

Certainly, many other people have made significant contributions by bringing Parliamentary Debate to their area and helping it grow. The hosts of the Championship Tournament have all done an outstanding job and made the experience a professional and pleasant one. If the NPDA continues to grow and be successful, it is because the present officers have inherited a solid organization.


Parliamentary Debate: A Primer




Robert Branham
Professor of Rhetoric & Director of Debate
Bates College


John Meany
Director of Forensics
Claremont McKenna College

Spring, 1998

Debating has long been a vital part of American education. Training in debate improves valuable analytical and speaking skills, and enables the discussion of important issues, whether scientific, historical, religious or political. It contributes to the intellectual and ethical development of its participants by challenging them to make defensible judgments in which they must critically investigate complex issues, question given assumptions, evaluate the reliability of data and consider alternative perspectives. Debate stimulates and refines communication skills that empower individuals to speak for themselves, to discover and use their own voices. But most students debate because it is also fun. Debating provides a unique intellectual challenge and excitement, as Malcolm X reflected in his Autobiography:

Standing up there, the faces looking up at me, the things in my head coming out of my mouth, while my brain searched for the next best thing to follow what I was saying, and if I could sway them to my side by handling it right, then I had won the debate--once my feet got wet, I was gone on debating.1

Academic debate takes many forms, some highly specialized and others less formal, some that emphasize research and prepared arguments, and others that stress extemporaneous speaking and analytical skills. Parliamentary debate has long been the predominant form of competitive academic debating in most English-speaking nations. It is now the most widely practiced type of intercollegiate debate in the United States and many American secondary and middle schools have also begun to develop parliamentary debating programs. This guide explains the formats and procedures of parliamentary debate for use in classes, public debates, and competitive tournaments.

Based loosely on the deliberative discussions of the British House of Commons, parliamentary debate is lively and audience-oriented. The House of Commons, unlike the U.S. Congress, permits no written speeches from its members. Similarly, no speeches, briefs, or quotations are read in parliamentary debates. The debaters speak extemporaneously in parliamentary competition, using only the notes they have made during the debate and preparation period.

Parliamentary debate differs from other forms of competitive debate in several additional ways. Parliamentary debates are more oratorical, witty, and accessible to general audiences. They are shorter than traditional policy debates, making them well-suited to classroom use. Parliamentary debates have relatively few rules; they feature less jargon and fewer theoretical arguments. The rules of parliamentary debating are primarily designed to ensure that debates are evenly matched and enjoyable. Because parliamentary debating is less technical than other forms of debate and easier to learn, most students are able to begin debating in this format almost immediately.


The specific formats, rules and conventions of parliamentary debating vary in different nations and leagues.2 One of the virtues of parliamentary debate is its flexibility. Speaking times. numbers of speakers, judging and other elements of the debate format may be altered to accommodate particular needs and purposes.

In competitive parliamentary debating, each round of debate has a different topic announced just before the debate begins. The amount of preparation time varies, allowing from ten minutes to (in British secondary school tournaments) one hour of preparation between the announcement of the topic and the beginning of debate. 3 Fifteen minutes is the most common allotment.

During preparation time, the participants analyze the proposition and outline their major arguments. They ask themselves: What does this proposition mean? What important issues are raised by it? How may it be affirmed or denied? What examples and events are relevant to its discussion? The answers to these and other questions will serve as the foundation for the government case and prepare the opposition for its refutation. Some tournaments and competitive leagues permit the use of dictionaries, texts and other prepared materials during preparation time. Others limit or even prohibit coaching and use of prepared materials prior to the debates.

The first speaker for the proposition must use some of the preparation time to organize the main issues of the case into a logically complete and persuasive form to convey the best possible impression of the their case. The first speaker therefore uses preparation time to arrange the essential elements of the case into a brief outline. The argument outline should clearly bring the major elements of the case into relation with each other and constitute a complete case on behalf of the motion.

A standard American tournament format for parliamentary debate consists of six speeches:

First proposition constructive speech 7 minutes

First opposition constructive speech 8 minutes

Second proposition constructive speech 8 minutes

Second opposition constructive speech 8 minutes

Opposition rebuttal 4 minutes

Proposition rebuttal 5 minutes

The speakers for the proposition (sometimes called the government), open and close the debate in defense of the motion. Unlike other forms of American team debate, parliamentary debate features just one rebuttal per side. The rebuttal is given by the first constructive speaker for each team.

The presiding officer of each debate is the Chair, or Speaker of the House (usually a judge or moderator). The Speaker of the House manages the debate, recognizes the speakers, and rules upon any disputes that arise in the course of the round.4 The Speaker introduces each debater in turn. There is no preparation time between speeches. After one speech is finished, the Speaker of the House calls upon the next debater to proceed.

In most American tournament debating, there are two persons on a team, with one person on each team speaking twice. Public debates often feature three-person teams, with a different person giving each speech in the debate. Three-person teams allow more people to participate and provide more variety for audiences.


Parliamentary debates may either have set topics, known days or weeks in advance of the debate, or be conducted extemporaneously. In American parliamentary debating, set topics are used primarily for one-on-one debates between two schools and for public debates, so that the topic can be announced and publicized. Set topics permit advance research, brainstorming and practice debates. In the debates themselves, however, minimal notes are used and no speeches or briefs are read. Written quotations are used sparingly or not at all. Parliamentary tournament debating is generally extemporaneous., with a different topic announced a few minutes before each round. 5

Most propositions in parliamentary debate begin with either the phrase "Be it resolved that. ." (often abbreviated as "B.I.R.T.") or "This House believes. . ." (or "This House would The "House," unless otherwise specified by the first proposition speaker, refers to the judge(s) and audience attending the debate, who serve as a deliberative parliament. The proposition or topic in a parliamentary debate is usually referred to as the motion.

Two types of motions are commonly used in American parliamentary tournament debating: straight motions and linkable motions. 

Straight motions are meant to be debated literally. They may be drawn from current events (e.g., "Be it resolved that the United States should lift its economic sanctions against Cuba"; or "This House would support the admission of Russia to N.A.T.O."), or they may be broader statements of historical judgment or philosophy ("Be it resolved that the American dream has become an American nightmare"; "This House believes that the United States has been more sinned against than sinning"). Some motions require value comparison ("This House believes that the local is preferable to the global"; "This House despises flattery more than slander"). Such debates rely upon examples to prove or disprove the proposition, but the proposition itself is still the focus of the debate. In motions used for tournament competition, the proposition team is sometimes permitted to choose which side of a given issue it will defend (e.g., "The United States should/should not extend Most Favored Nation trade status to China"). Their choice is announced at the beginning of the debate.

Linkable motions need not be debated literally, but may instead be linked to specific policy proposals selected by the government team and not known by the opposition until the first constructive speech is heard. A linkable motion may be drawn from a pithy quotation ("B.J.R.T. It is better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees") or a song lyric ("B.I.R.T. freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose"). The proposition team may define the terms of the motion in most any way they choose, generally linking the abstract motion to some specific controversy through the use of metaphors. For example, the last topic ("freedom's just another word ) might be linked to a case statement in favor of restoring the eligibility of legal
immigrants (who came here seeking "freedom") for welfare benefits (without which, they have "nothin' left to lose"). The topic "it is better to die on one's feet might be linked to the case statement that "the United States should not extend Most Favored Nation status to China," arguing that America should "stand up" for its principles rather than remaining on its knees to placate China.

The link between the motion and case is often quite loose, although some leagues and tournaments insist upon tight links. Topicality arguments, common in other forms of American competitive debating, are highly unusual in most parliamentary debating leagues, in part because they are regarded as less interesting than talking about the issues of the case. On the other hand, as the authors of the English-Speaking Union's guide to secondary school debate in Great Britain explain, "intelligent and straightforward definitions are expected and rewarded" by adjudicators.6 In parliamentary debate, the linkable motion is generally less important than the case, which must provide the basis for a good, evenly matched, debate.7

Speaker Style and Responsibilities

Although adjudicators of parliamentary debates generally pay more attention to content and strategy than to style, speaking skills do receive more attention in parliamentary debate than in most other forms of debate competition. Good parliamentary debaters speak at a rate of speech comprehensible to the layperson untrained in debate. Physical and vocal delivery, humor, passion and persuasiveness are important elements of parliamentary debating. A parliamentary debater should maintain eye contact with the audience and develop a speaking style that is fluent and expressive.
Parliamentary debaters do not read written speeches, briefs, or evidence. Instead, parliamentary debaters speak from a few notes that record the arguments that other speakers have made in the debate and outline their own main points. Each of these points should be signposted, explained, supported by relevant facts and examples, and given impact. Because there is no preparation time between speeches, parliamentary debaters must learn to think on their feet, adding and elaborating upon arguments while speaking.

Each speaker position in parliamentary debate also involves specific responsibilities for the discussion of the motion.

First speaker, proposition

The opening speaker establishes the framework for the debate and establishes a logically complete case for the proposition. This involves an expository presentation in which the speaker may define any ambiguous terms of the motion, interpret the motion through a clear case statement, offer a history of the issue in controversy, and disclose any limitations for the discussion. After such preliminaries, the first speaker should state and support the main arguments of the case.

Interpretation of the motion. The motion should mean the same thing to all participants in the debate. To that end, the proposition team has the responsibility to clarify the ground for debate by defining any distinguishing, technical or ambiguous terms of the resolution. Debates in which ambiguous terms are not clearly defined in the opening speech often go astray, lacking clash and clarity. A debate on welfare reform, for example, in which the opening speaker failed to explain what the government meant by '~welfare" (food stamps or farm subsidies?) and 'reform" (abolish, reduce or expand?), for example, would probably be a waste of time. Clear definitions permit clear debate.8

In addition to defining any unclear terms of the motion, the first speaker should offer a concise case statement. The case statement should plainly express the government's interpretation of the motion in one sentence, such as "federal income tax should be set at a flat rate" or "high schools should not conduct warrantless searches of student lockers." The wording of the case statement is very important; it will frame the discussion and determine the relevance of arguments. It should be carefully transcribed by ail participants in the debate. Once presented, the case statement may not be changed.

The case statement should clearly advance a controversial claim, capable of affirmation and denial, susceptible to proof and disproof. The case statement can be based on a narrow construction of the motion or an understanding that is creative, unusual or enterprising. Any narrow construction should have a link to the resolution or serve as an appropriate analogy for the motion. In support of the motion, "This House would expand N.A.F.T.A.," for example, the government might define "This House" as the government of Chile and "expand N.A.F.T.A." as the adoption of internal economic reforms likely to secure Chile's admission in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Here is an example of how the first proposition speaker might provide definitions and case statement for the motion, "This House would further restrict free speech":

We support the motion, "This House would further restrict free speech." By "free speech." we mean currently legal expressions that vilify groups of involuntary association (that is, race, gender, and ethnicity). We believe that public high schools in the United States should adopt hate speech codes prohibiting speech that vilifies groups or individuals on the basis of their race, gender or ethnicity.

The government must, at the beginning of the debate, define the motion and provide a clear and debatable statement of their position.

Providing Opposition ground. The duty of the proposition team is to provide the basis for a good debate. The first speaker must accordingly present a case that is highly debatable. This requirement is very different from other forms of competitive debating, in which the affirmative team attempts to secure a strategic advantage by devising a case that is so strong and so obscure that the other side will have nothing of consequence to say against it. In parliamentary debate, however, this approach is unacceptable.

The first proposition speaker must provide a case against which there are strong and principled arguments. Some interpretations of a motion do not provide for effective debate. The government's interpretation must not constitute a truism, a claim (e.g., "Murder is reprehensible") that no reasonable person would oppose. In parliamentary debate, the opposition may argue that a given case is not sufficiently debatable. The second proposition speaker is then expected in the next speech to demonstrate that strong opposition arguments do exist, or else lose the decision.

Moreover. the case must not require specific knowledge to debate. Because there is no opportunity to research the case topic prior to the debate, cases must concern issues with which the opposition could reasonably be expected to be familiar, or sufficient background information must be provided at the beginning of the first proposition speech to make strong Opposition possible.

Burden of proof 

In most debates, the first proposition speaker supports the motion by advocating something new, challenging established ideas, or attempting to settle an issue in public controversy. It is the obligation of the person who affirms the motion to prove the case. In a criminal court case, the defense may file a motion for dismissal if the prosecutor has failed to provide a well-substantiated case for conviction. Similarly, the first speaker for the proposition has the burden of establishing a case for the motion. As Raymond Alden explained in his 1900 treatise on The Art of Debate, there is an "obligation resting upon one or other parties to a controversy to establish by proofs a given proposition, before being entitled to receive an answer from the other side." This responsibility rests, he concluded, "upon the side that would be assumed to be defeated if no progress at all were made in the consideration of the case."9 The government's burden of proof is met through the presentation and support of its major arguments, or case.

The case. 

The first proposition speaker should establish interest in the motion and case through an introduction. The introduction should demonstrate the timeliness of the case, perhaps by recounting a recent story or contemporary context for the controversy. A case for the abolition of capital punishment might be introduced by recounting the story of a recent or pending execution, for example. The introduction should persuade the judge and audience that the issue is of importance and interest to them.

After providing necessary definitions and a clear case statement, the first proposition speaker should outline from two to four major points in support of the case statement. Each of these points should be signposted as clearly and concisely as possible. Each point should be fully explained and supported by examples, complete in itself and distinct from the other main issues. In support of the motion, "This House believes that good things come to those who wait," for example, the government might argue that the "good thing" is the burial, after seven decades of waiting, of the body of Vladimir Lenin. Lenin's preserved corpse has been on public display in Moscow since his death in 1924. In order to make this case debatable, the first speaker would be expected to provide sufficient background information. 

To support the case statement that Russia should bury Lenin, the government might offer three main points. By burying Lenin, Russia will:

I. Bury an obsolete symbol of the communist past;

II. Save the enormous expense of storing the body; and

III. Fulfill Lenin's own wishes for the disposal of his remains.

Each of these points would be supported with reasoning, facts, stories and illustrations. The first proposition speaker should also explain why each of these arguments is significant; why, for example, it is important that one should have control over the disposition of one's own body after

In support of the motion, "This House would abolish capital punishment," the first speaker might offer the following major points:

I. The death penalty fails to deter crime;

II. Innocent people are executed; and

III. Capital punishment is discriminatory by race and class.

The first speaker should offer a complete and compelling case for the motion. The opening speech should be concluded by a restatement or summary of the main points of the case.

First speaker, opposition

The duty of the opposition is to provide clash, promoting a choice between the proposal advanced by the proposition team and some other course of action or position. The Opposition should make clear why the motion before the house should be defeated.
The job of the Opposition in extemporaneous debate is very challenging. When a linkable resolution is used, the opposition will often have no idea of what the proposition team 5 case will be until the first speaker begins. But the Opposition's job is made easier by the requirement that the proposition team advance a case that provides strong and principled ground for the opposition. If the proposition team has met its burden, the opposition should be able to discover good arguments on first hearing the case.

The Opposition speaker may choose to contest the definitions or case statement that the government has established for the debate. If these are not disputed in the first Opposition speech, they are presumed to be tacitly accepted for the remainder of the debate. Definitions should only be disputed when the fairness and debatability of the proposition are at stake. Debates that center on definitional disputes are almost always less enjoyable than those that center on the issues of the

The first opposition speaker attempts to weaken or nullify the case for the proposition, usually by refuting the main points of the case. This is called direct refutation. The Opposition analyzes the first proposition speaker's arguments, pointing out logical fallacies, factual inaccuracies or inconsistencies in the main lines of proof. The first Opposition speaker should also identify any of the common errors of case construction that the proposition team has committed, including ignored exceptions to case examples, the improper combination of arguments, and overdrawn conclusions.
The opposition is not obliged to dispute or disagree with every argument, or even every main point, of the proposition team's case. In fact, many debaters miss important Opportunities for winning arguments because they feel compelled to negate each of the ideas their Opponents introduce. It may be to the advantage of the opposition to agree with or concede one or more elements of the proposition team's case. An opposition speaker may choose to agree with an argument by the team defending the proposition in order to simplify or focus the discussion on more salient issues, to reveal a contradiction or inconsistency, or to use an argument from the proposition side to support the opposition's position. A speaker should, however, address the vital issues of the other side, whether by strategically agreeing with them or contesting them.

Although the Opposition often defends existing policies against the proposition team~s proposal for change, the first Opposition speaker may choose to present a countercase,defending a new course of action mutually exclusive with that presented by the proposition.10 The countercase is often designed to address a problem area identified in the case. For example, on the topic, 'This House believes in pacifism," the proposition team might support a position of complete military nonintervention. Rather than defending current patterns of military intervention, the Opposition might instead defend a position of limited or conditional intervention -- supporting intervention only against overt acts of territorial aggression or only in cooperation with multilateral Organizations, for example. The countercase is not a defense of current national security policy, nor is it compatible with the proposition team's complete prohibition of military intervention. The proposition team's case maintains a universal principle of nonintervention, while the opposition case allows selected use of military intervention. The countercase is designed to resolve many of the examples of bad military intervention cited in the proposition case and to provide the Opposition's own worthy exceptions to the motion.

Second speakers, proposition and opposition

The second (also called 'member") constructive speeches for each side have similar responsibilities. They should effectively refute the important arguments of the opposing side and amplify the strong arguments initiated by their colleagues. The member speeches are the last for each side in the debate in which new arguments and issues may be introduced.

The member speakers should concentrate on sustaining the core arguments for their side. The second speaker for the proposition should advance the main lines of the case presented in the opening speech so that they cannot be convincingly disputed in the remaining speeches. To this end. the second proposition speaker should refute all important objections presented by the preceding opposition speaker and provide new examples or other forms of additional support for the main points of the proposition team's case.

The second speaker for the opposition may support the objections of the first Opposition speaker, present additional objections, defend and expand the opposition's countercase if one has been presented, and evaluate inconsistencies between the arguments of the first and second proposition speakers. For both second speakers, the primary duties are extension and amplification--ensuring that all major issues for both sides have been covered and that the important arguments for their side have been expanded with additional support.


Most good debates are won or lost in the rebuttals. The rebuttals are the summary speeches for each side of the debate, the last opportunity each side will have to explain why they should win. Rebuttals are a final opportunity to contrast the major positions and philosophies of the proposition and opposition. Skilled rebuttalists in parliamentary debate do not attempt to cover every minute issue that has been discussed in the debate, but rather to deal in depth with those issues that will have a substantial bearing on the decision to uphold or defeat the motion. The shorter time of rebuttal speeches necessitates selectivity. Rebuttalists should paint the "big picture" of the round, sorting out the decisive issues from those that are less important.

New arguments may not be introduced in the rebuttal. Arguments presented in the rebuttal must have a foundation in the constructive speeches. The proposition rebuttalist is entitled to answer new arguments made in the second opposition speech, because the final rebuttal is the first Opportunity that the proposition team has to refute these issues.

The opposition has the first rebuttal speech. This speech should offer an effective summation of the main issues of the debate, demonstrating how important points for the opposition undermine support for the motion. The opposition rebuttalist should carry through important issues from the constructive speeches, illustrating the significant dimension of each issue in qualitative or quantitative terms. The opposition should generally avoid "putting all its eggs in one basket" by offering several independent reasons to reject the motion.

The proposition has the final speech in the debate. This speech should summarize the entire debate from the perspective of the proposition, focusing the discussion on a group of powerfully unified ideas. The final rebuttalist should extend the important arguments from the constructives, offer multiple, independent proofs of the motion, and contrast the main arguments of the Opposition with those in favor of the motion.


In parliamentary debate, a debater may rise to make a point while another person is
speaking. There are three types of points that may be made: points of order, points of personal privilege, and points of information. Points of order and points of personal privilege are rarely used and should be reserved for important violations of debate protocol. Points of information are a regular part of most parliamentary debates and are much more common than the other two.

Points of order. 

One may rise to a point of order when a member of the other team has violated the rules for debating. There are few rules in parliamentary debate, so a point of order is usually called only when (1) an opponent has introduced a new argument in rebuttals or (2) an Opponent has gone significantly Overtime.

A point of order is addressed to the Speaker of the House. The person making the point rises from his or her seat, interrupts the person speaking, saying, "Madame/Mr. Speaker, I rise to a point of order," and then states the violation. The clock is stopped while the point of order is under consideration. In most parliamentary competition, a point of order is not debatable; the Opposing team is not permitted to comment upon it. 11 The Speaker of the House rules immediately upon the completion of the point and says, "Point well taken," "point not well taken," or "point taken under consideration," if no immediate ruling is possible. The Speaker of the House may take the results of the point of order into account in their deliberations, penalizing the team or speaker that has committed the violation.

Points of personal privilege. 

A debater may rise to a point of personal privilege during an opponent's speech when his or her position or argument has been seriously misstated by the Opposing speaker. A point of personal privilege is addressed to the Speaker of the House, who then rules upon it. A point of personal privilege is not debatable.

Points of information. 

Points of information are a dynamic and enjoyable part of parliamentary debate. They take the place of the cross-examination periods used in other American debating formats. Unlike cross-examination, however, points of information are raised during the speech of the person questioned. The point of information is a brief rejoinder (fifteen seconds or less) to the point then being made by the person speaking. It may be a concise statement or a pointed question. A point of information is also sometimes used for purposes of clarification. Unlike the point of order or personal privilege, the point of information is directed to the person speaking rather than to the Speaker of the House.
To make a point of information, the debater rises, faces the person speaking and signals his or her desire to speak. either verbally (saying, for example, "Point of information, Madame/Mr. Speaker!" or "And on that point, Madame/Mr. Speaker") or nonverbally, by holding a hand out. The person speaking may then allow the point to be stated or refuse to take the point. If the person speaking declines your point, you must sit down. If recognized, you make the point and then sit down. The speaker then responds to the point and continues her or his speech.
Points of information are not permitted during rebuttals. Nor are they allowed during the first or last minute of any constructive speech. The timekeeper should offer a signal (using a bell or a knock on the table, for example) at the end of the first minute and at the beginning of the last minute of each constructive speech. Points of information are permitted only between these two signals.

Each constructive speaker in the debate should both offer and accept points of information. A speaker who declines to accept any points may seem to fear the opponent s arguments. On the other hand, a speaker who accepts too many points of information loses control of his or her speech. Usually, a constructive speaker will accept two or three points of information. Points of information are an integral part of parliamentary debating. The English-Speaking Union's guidebook explains that "offering points of information, even if they are not accepted, shows that you are active and interested in the debate. Accepting them when offered shows that you are confident of your arguments and prepared to defend them. A team that does neither of these is not debating."12

Types of Cases

There are several distinct types of cases in parliamentary debate. Some are similar to those used in other forms of debate, others are quite different. Because the proposition team is given great latitude in its selection of cases, debaters have the opportunity to discuss issues of particular interest for them, whether drawn from current events, sports, popular culture, literature, science, history or ethics, for example. So long as the case provides the basis for a good debate, the proposition team on a linkable motion may talk about virtually anything. The most common forms types of cases used with linkable motions are these:

Current national or international policy controversies

Russia should be admitted to N.A.T.O.

The U.S. should end its embargo of Iran.

Nepal should close Mt. Everest to climbing.

Local controversies of broader interest

Dade County, Florida should permit concerts by Cuban musicians.

The Eye of the Needle (a 200-foot natural sandstone arch in Montana destroyed by vandals) should not be repaired.

Sports and popular culture disputes

Baseball should eliminate the designated hitter.

Vinyl records are better than compact disks.

Literary cases

You're Cinderella. Don't marry the prince.

You're Dorothy. Don't go back to Kansas.

Personal decisions

You should not eat meat.

You're the parent of a five year-old boy. Don't buy toy guns for him.

Time-space cases

Time-space cases stipulate an alternative identity for the adjudicator (as a specific person, group, or Organization) and an alternate time and/or place at which the debate is conducted.

It's August 6,1945, and you're Harry Truman. Don't drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

It's June 1936 and you're Franklin Roosevelt (or, alternatively. the U.S. Olympic
Committee). Boycott the Berlin Olympics.

When debating a time-space case, the participants must restrict themselves to arguments based on what was known at that time and not on later events. A debate on the Hiroshima topic. for example, could not include the fact that the war would end within two weeks of the bombing. Similarly, the Olympics debate could not include details that only became known after the specified date, such as the number of medals that African American track star Jesse Owens would eventually win in the 1936 games. Time-space debates must be restricted to what was known at the time and, if an individual persona (such as Harry Truman) is assigned to the judge, to the attitudes and
interests of that historical figure. Time-space cases are used both in competitive parliamentary debates and as a classroom exercise for the discussion of historical events and figures.

Floor Speeches

In public parliamentary debates and in the final rounds of tournaments, floor speeches by members of the audience are sometimes permitted between the constructives and rebuttals. A floor speech is a brief address (often limited to one minute) offered in support of the proposition, the opposition, or some third position (a "cross-bench" speech).~3 At the conclusion of the constructive speeches, the speaker of the house calls for speeches from the floor. The speaker of the house may begin by asking for a floor speech in favor of the government, then ask for one in favor of the opposition, and continue to alternate. The speaker of the house may close the floor after a certain number of speeches have been delivered for each side, or after some set period of time (usually ten or fifteen minutes). The speaker of the house then calls upon the opposition rebuttalist to begin.
Good floor speeches are limited to a single important point. The floor speaker may address some point that has already been raised in the debate, or introduce a new point that has not been raised in the constructive speeches. The rebuttalists should take important points raised in the floor speeches into account, respond to them when necessary and use them when possible.
Floor speeches add a great deal to debates. They permit more people to participate and increase the diversity of perspectives on issues considered. They are a goodOpportunity for novice debaters to offer brief speeches (a less intimidating prospect than being asked to deliver a full-length debate speech) and for experienced debaters to think about what one issue could win the debate for their side. They transform passive listeners into active participants in the debate, more attentive and engaged during the principal speeches.

Public Debates

In an increasingly polarized and fragmented society, more individuals need the opportunity to engage each other and contest ideas about the common good. By participating in public debates, students may promote community discussion of controversial issues and encourage democratic participation and expressions of difference in the public sphere.

Public debates may be held in schools, primarily for audiences of students and teachers, or at non-academic sites in the community for wider audiences. Parliamentary debate, with its combination of issue analysis, rhetorical skill, humor, and lively interaction, is enjoyable for general audiences. The debate format helps frame the discussion of current controversies and educates audiences in different ways of approaching social and political concerns.

A good public debate will promote the desire of those attending it to speak for themselves about the issues raised. The standard parliamentary debate format is easily modified to include public participation in the discussion. Public parliamentary debates often provide an opportunity for floor speeches from the audience between the constructives and rebuttals. Some public debates feature questions from the audience or open discussion after the debate.

Public debates can become an important forum for communities with few existing opportunities for public expression. They also encourage student participants to consider community perspectives on issues and to adapt their own persuasive appeals to community interests and concerns.


1 Malcolm X (with Alex Haley), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 184. See also Robert Branham, "'I Was Gone on Debating': Malcolm X's Prison Debates and Public Confrontations," Argumentation and Advocacy 31 (Winter, 1995), 117-137.

2 In Canada, the leader of the opposition gives the second opposition constructive speech and the rebuttal. In British tournaments, there are four different two-person teams in each debate, two defending the proposition and two opposing it.

3 Most American parliamentary tournaments provide fifteen minutes of preparation time.

4 In some debate leagues, it is the Speaker of the House who announces the topic once the debaters have arrived in the room where the debate will be held. The Speaker then times the preparation period.

5 Some British secondary school tournaments, such as those sponsored by the English- Speaking Union, feature several rounds of debate, some with set topics drawn from a list of possible resolutions announced in advance of the tournament, and at least one round of extemporaneous debates, in which students have one hour to prepare after the topic is first announced.

6 Trevor Sather, The Schools Mace 1997-98 Official Handbook (London: English- Speaking Union, 1997), 17.

7 Parliamentary debate tournaments sometimes issue two topics for each round, one linkable resolution and one straight resolution. The government team may choose between these two, with their choice of resolutions announced at the beginning of the debate.

8 Robert Branham, Debate and Critical Analysis (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum,
1991), 38-41.

9 Raymond Alden, The Art of Debate (New York: Holt, 1900), 61-62.

10 Branham, Debate and Critical Analysis, 150-176.

11 This rule is not applicable in the National Parliamentary Debate Association, prominent in the Western United~States, in which many judges permit the disputation of points of order.

12 Trevor Sather, The Schools Mace 1997-98 Official Handbook (London: English- Speaking Union, 1997), 14.

13 The Speaker of the House usually recognizes cross-bench speakers after floor speeches for the Opposition and proposition have been completed. Cross-bench speeches do not support either of the two sides in the debate, but instead support some third position or perspective. In a debate in which the proposition team argued for lifting all economic sanctions against Cuba and the opposition supported keeping current sanctions in place, for example, a cross-bench floor speaker might support a partial or conditional lifting of sanctions.