The (Odd) History of Public Forum Debate

Public Forum is a staple of high-school forensics, and it’s a prominent debate event in the NSDA’s arsenal of options. Every year, Public Forum is offered at hundreds of tournaments around the United States. It seems to only be growing in its popularity, even though it’s one of the youngest events to hit the competitive scene.

Where did it come from?

In 1995, Lincoln Douglas was founded as an alternative to the fast-talking, detail-driven style of policy debate. It opened up lofty conversations about abstract values and philosophical ideas. For years, high-school forensics was dominated by these two polarizing events. 

Public Forum was created to bridge the gap between them. 

Oddly enough, the event was initiated by billionaire and CNN founder Ted Turner. He modeled the event around the TV Show “Crossfire” in hopes of making an accessible debate event with a wider array of acceptable argumentative approaches than LD or Policy. As a result, the event was nearly called “Ted Turner Debate.” As the Jesuit Review put it:

“As L.D. descended further and further into absurdity, Ted Turner, the billionaire founder of CNN, came along and attempted to turn the ship again. Like the Philips executive several decades earlier, he pushed the National Forensic League in 2002 to establish a new debate format that would be plainspoken and jargon-free. The resulting format, which immediately drew comparisons to CNN’s “Crossfire,” was called Public Forum. Its title was an expression of Mr. Turner’s hope that any reasonably informed member of the public could walk into a Public Forum round and be able to pick a winner.”

“Crossfire” took a panel of people with diametric viewpoints and asked them to argue. Debates were rather open-ended and had minimal structure. While Public Forum replaced Ted Turner for its name, it did retain the term “Crossfire” to name the periods of open-ended cross-examination after constructive speeches.

A New Kind of Accessible

While Policy debaters support their resolution with technical and specific argument classes (harms, plan, solvency, etc), Public Forum debaters approach the resolution in a more streamlined fashion. For instance, take the resolution “The United States Federal Government should provide universal healthcare for its citizens.” 

Policy debaters would outline a plan with technical mandates, specified bodies of agency and enforcement, sources for funding, and a clear timeline. A Public Forum debater would boil his case down into a collection of 2 to 3 points.

  • “Reason #1: Millions Die Without Healthcare.”

  • “Reason #2: Operational Efficiency.”

Public Forum also emulates “Crossfire’s” accessibility. The show focused on packaging complex arguments in an intelligent but comprehensible way. Similarly, speed-and-spread styles are rarer to find in Public Forum than in Policy.

How Public Forum Has Changed

Like any debate event, Public Forum has evolved over the years. Public Forum has shifted to become more like policy debate. This is in part because Public Forum almost always uses policy resolutions: topics that suggest a course of action. For that reason, policy-style impact calculus tends to win out more often than not.

In the six years I’ve been involved with Public Forum, I’ve seen PF become more like TP first hand. Spreading has become increasingly common and crossfire has become more fast-paced. Since NSDA lifted its restriction on in-round technology, statistics tend to be accessed more quickly and in greater numbers. Notably, utilitarianism is nearly always the overarching framework in Public Forum debates—even though many motions yield opportunities for different approaches.

However, while explicit value frameworks are rarely presented, PF debaters certainly do imply them. On the Universal Healthcare motion, you could expect the Pro to talk at length about the importance of ensuring basic social minimums for the citizenry. You could anticipate the Con to bring up a philosophical view of the role of government, but package it to sound like policy-style disadvantage. This nuance makes Public Forum one of the most versatile debate events that high-school forensics has to offer.

If you want to become an outstanding PF debater, book a session with me and I’ll show you how to master it. I’ve trained champions in the event before, and I look forward to creating the next one.

Will it be you?