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Students compete in debate on about freedom of expression

April 22, 2022

On April 7, a debate competition revolving around whether or not the University of Wisconsin-River Falls should adopt the “Chicago Statement” on Freedom of Expression was held on campus in the University Center. 

The debate featured three teams, two of which argued against the adoption of the “Chicago Statement” on Freedom of Expression, and one of which argued for it, and two rounds of debate. The “Chicago Statement” is an overarching stance by the University of Chicago that affirms its commitment to uninhibited freedom of expression for their community. The statement speaks against things like “trigger warnings,” intellectual safe spaces, and the prohibition of speakers deemed controversial, arguing that those measures prevent students from exposure to ideas and perspectives that differ from their own, thereby acting as forms of censorship. 

Debate
From left to right: Jeslyn Andrews, Matt Weiman and Joey Schulte compete in the debate. (Photo by Charlie Swanson / Student Voice)

Due to the number of teams, the team arguing for the resolution took to the stand twice to face off against both of the con “Chicago Statement” teams. Teams were composed of two to three students, with both of the pro teams having three students, while the con team had two. Each round kicked off with the opening statements from both teams, a cross-examination period, followed by the closing statements. All competitors received $100 for participating, the second-place team was awarded $500, and the top prize for the winning team was $1,000. The winning team, which argued against the adoption of the “Chicago Statement, was made up of Anya Getschel, Ryan Arthur, and Blake Buchholz, all of whom represented the Forensics Club of Hudson High School. It is important to note that those arguing for or against the proposition are not necessarily for or against it. 

The judges for the competition were Communications Studies Program Director and Associate Professor Grace Coggio and Communication and Media Studies Department Chair and Professor Jennifer Willis-Rivera. The teams’ arguments were evaluated on the strength of their opening statements, cross-examination/rebuttal, and their closing statements. 

For the opening statements, the judges were looking for a clear thesis, adequate support of any claims that were made, and an effective public speaking presence. During the cross-examination stage of the debate, the teams were evaluated on the astuteness of their questions as they harkened back to points made by their opposition and the soundness they displayed in their rebuttals. Etiquette was also an important metric weighed by the judges throughout the debate, meaning that the speakers were expected to politely and actively listen to their opposition before taking their turn, especially during the rebuttal period.

Speakers’ closing statements were scored, in part,  based on the depth and cohesiveness of any references they made back to their opposition in order to show an understanding of the dissenting stance. Finally, the effectiveness of the final pitch, or closing argument, presented in a team’s closing statement is factored into the judge’s scoring tally.

College of Business and Economics Professor Brian Huffman put this debate on by administering a civil liberties grant, and he also served as the moderator. Huffman drew inspiration for the debate and its structure from the Oxford Union, which is a debating society in Oxford, England that draws most of its membership from the University of Oxford. Huffman sees the ability of, and opportunity for, one to argue their point of view as paramount attributes for college students in their progression.  

“You have universities that have given up on freedom of speech, and I wanted to give students an opportunity to debate and make sure their minds still work,” said Huffman.

Huffman selected the “Chicago Statement” on Freedom of Expression as the topic for the debate because he wanted students to explore and assess the current state of freedom of expression in academia. He feels like people are objecting to controversy too often in today’s society, and he is a firm believer that instead of turning away from controversial subject matter, people should confront it and immerse themselves in the surrounding discourse. Picking a more black and white topic may not have evoked any meaningful takeaways. 

“I could have a debate on if the sky was blue, and everyone would join the pro team,” said Huffman. 

This debate competition was supposed to take place last year, but COVID-19 did what it has done best and completely disrupted the event. Going forward, Huffman wishes for the debate competition to become an annual affair on campus and would like to see much more participation from students. One of Huffman’s favorite quotes comes from Oscar Wilde and it explains why he is putting an emphasis on setting the stage for debates at UWRF: “Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.”

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