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Penguin Debaters Address Big Questions at Tournament in Atlanta

PF Debaters pictured from left: Reia Stock-Heard, Kate O’Brien, Lucy Watkins, Mae Tuggle / Credits: Candice Frost

Should social media programs be allowed to take down content if they find it inappropriate? What military or financial aid should the US government provide Israel? Why are Biden’s approval ratings so low when his record is so high? These were some of the questions the SWW debate team tackled at their debate tournament this past January.

From Friday, Jan. 26 to Sunday, Jan. 28, six Penguin debaters attended the Barkley Forum for High School Students (BFHS) debate tournament at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Since its debut in 1956, BFHS has become one of the most prestigious debate tournaments in the country, attracting debate teams from over 35 states. While the attending SWW debate team was small, they proved their ability to match some of the best Public Forum debaters and extemporaneous speakers in the US.

Mae Tuggle (‘26), Lucy Watkins (‘27), Katherine O’Brien (‘24), and Reia StockHeard (‘27) participated in the Public Forum category. PF is a difficult event, which involves back-and-forth debate in which two pairs of students argue for opposing sides. A team begins by presenting their case, arguing either the affirmative or negative stance. Then, the opposing team refutes their argument, presenting a block to which the original debaters respond.

In order to succeed in PF, debaters must spend considerable time researching and writing in the preceding months. All of this work served Walls students well in the final competition.

The SWW debaters prepared both an affirmative and negative speech in response to the question, “Should the United States federal government repeal Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act?” Section 230 protects online platforms from being held legally responsible for the information posted on their sites and are protected from lawsuits based on their content moderation policies. This Act is receiving a lot of attention right now because social media platforms are using it to justify censoring their users’ posts. Some argue that this censorship violates freedom of speech while others contend that regulating content on social media is a more pressing issue.

Jessie Moss (‘26) and Zoe Becker (‘26) participated in extemporaneous speech (Editors note: both Moss and Becker write for the Rookery). Extemporaneous speech is vastly distinct from PF. The competition is completely individual and involves far less research than PF. 30 minutes before each round, each speaker is given an envelope with three speech topics. The speakers then have 30 minutes to prepare a seven-minute speech on one of the topics. The prospect of receiving their issue shortly before debating can be daunting, but debaters are accustomed to the high-pressure situation. Becker said, “once I actually have the question in my hand and I start to prepare, I’d usually fall into a groove … like ‘Okay, I can do this.’”

Becker also said that her pre-tournament work really helped her during those 30 minutes. In preparation for the tournament, the SWW speech debaters consumed as much current media as possible to ensure they had the knowledge to craft their speech. Becker said, “I probably listened to more podcasts than music in the run-up to the tournament.” The uncertainty of extemporaneous speech makes the preparation less work-heavy, but potentially more stressful.

After much preparation, SWW debaters flew out to Atlanta with two parent chaperones on Friday, Jan. 26. They stayed two nights in a Marriott Hotel off-campus and Ubered to the tournament each day.

Once the debaters arrived at the actual tournament, they were ready. Becker gave nine speeches in total and ended up making it to the quarterfinals. “This event has taught me how to work well under pressure better than anything else … I consider myself a queen of timed-essays because of [it].” Every single SWW debater employed this same quick thinking throughout the tournament.

Marielle Cornes, the SWW debate coach, was not able to attend the trip, but followed her students’ performance on the Emory website. She said, “For me, my favorite moment was just being able to check online and see how good my kids were doing.” Ms. Cornes worked incredibly hard to ensure the team did the best they could at the tournament, resulting in a lot of success. She said, “This is definitely one of the more difficult tournaments our team goes to, which is why I’m always very impressed and proud with any positive outcomes.”

In terms of positive outcomes, Becker (‘26) was among the top 10 extemporaneous speakers and received a ceremonial key from the tournament. She said, “This was my first tournament [doing speech] on this level … and not only did it go well, [but] I really enjoyed myself.” Becker is glad she participated in this tournament and plans to continue doing speech debate.

Ms. Cornes is incredibly proud of the whole debate team for fielding this tournament. She said, “I just hope they take it as a learning experience because that’s what every debate tournament is: a way to learn more about a topic and get better at the activity.


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