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Fighting words: Student debaters spar in annual tourney

The annual Hicks tournament included arguments on topics such as domestic abuse law

Co-coordinator of the Radcliffe Hicks Debate Samantha Sanders ’13 wrote a motion on the board in Wilson Hall 101.

“This house would allow the government to use eminent domain on intellectual property.”

Seated in the front row were the two final competitors: Steven Adler ’15 in a grey blazer over a red gingham Oxford shirt and Jean McCabe ’14, in a blue blouse and black rain boots. The three judges — President Christina Paxson, Professor of Sociology David Lindstrom and Associate Professor of Economics and Urban Studies Nathaniel Baum-Snow — looked on.

Ten minutes were put on the clock, giving the competitors time to craft their arguments. And so began this year’s Hicks debate final, coordinated by the Brown Debating Union.


Setting precedent

The Hicks debate began in 1882, according to a 2010 University press release.

According to BDU lore, Hicks endowed the BDU with a gift to sponsor an annual debate tournament that would award prizes to the top two competitors, Sanders said. The debaters must only be sophomores and juniors, and only faculty members can judge the tournament. Today, the top prize amounts to $2,000, while the second place winner nets $1,500.

Sanders described the event as “a layman’s debate about important issues that pertain to Brown and the community at large.” One debater argues in the affirmative for the motion while the other debates in the negative.

The debates are quick — which Sanders said acts as a “reflection of how quickly they can analyze and then produce points on the issue”— and extemporaneous without aid from outside sources.

Sanders reached out to the community through Morning Mail and members of the BDU. She received 17 responses, and the 16 debaters were accepted on a first-come first-serve basis. But one debater dropped out the day before, leaving the final number of debaters for the competition.

The single-elimination debates began Monday, when at 5:06 p.m. Sanders read the first motion of the debate: “The house believes that every criminal defendant should be required to use a government-provided defense lawyer.”

The competitors, who were randomly paired through an online generator, scribbled down the motion and scrambled to exit, using the allotted 10 minutes to get to their debate rooms and come up with their arguments.


Crime and punishment

One of the eight rounds brought Ivy Sokol ’15.5 and Julien Angel ’14 to the Faunce Underground to argue in front of Theresa Devine, lecturer in public policy. The debaters alternated between three- to six-minute speeches with equal total time for each speaker.

Sokol, the affirmative speaker, took her place with a journal in hand, beginning the debate with arguments rooted in America’s founding principle of equality. Angel, who held two notebooks, rebutted by insisting there would be a decrease in the quality of representation if the motion were passed.

After the final speech, Sokol and Angel gave each other a handshake and left the room.

Sokol said she decided to give the tournament a shot given she had “a one in eight chance of $1,500.” Angel is a member of the BDU, which contributed seven debaters to the competition.

“We wouldn’t have enough debaters if we didn’t let people from the team join,” Sanders said.

After the first octoround, judges wrote down the winners on yellow notepads, handing the makeshift ballots to timekeepers who collected the ballots for tabulation.

Judges discussed strengths and weaknesses they observed while waiting in the headquarters for the next rounds to start.

“Style can sometimes work against substance,” said Rose McDermott, professor of political science.

Chris Tallent GS, graduate student in political science, has judged the Hicks debate for three years running and first heard of the debate from a student competitor he taught in a section.

“It’s an opportunity to have a discussion on topics not usually discussed,” Tallent said. “It seems like (the debaters) were having a good time.”


Shoutin’ it out

Sanders made her way into the competitors’ room to announce the first round winners who would move into the quarterfinals, and then announced the second motion: “This house would prosecute domestic abuse even when the victim opposes prosecution.”

Alex Mechanick ’15, a BDU member, argued in the affirmative against McCabe with McDermott serving as the judge and debaters from the first round watching the debate.

Mechanick said society is built “on a compact with other people” to maintain security, and “the state has an interest in decreasing behaviors” such as domestic abuse. Mechanick urged the judge to consider the moral weight of allowing a “threat to collective security” to continue living in society.

McCabe centered her argument around the point that the policy would discourage victims from reporting instances of domestic abuse.

Both competitors spoke with fervor and gusto, shouting when they got to the crux of their arguments and speaking through their time limits.

Less than 20 minutes after quarterfinals ended, Sanders entered the room once more to announce the semifinalists — Hannah Begley ’15, Race Archibold ’15, McCabe and Adler.


The last word

The final debate opened with a customary coin toss to decide the debaters’ positions on the motion. Adler, who won the coin toss, chose to negate the motion on the government’s use of eminent domain on intellectual property.

Sanders said the idea of eminent domain is a popular topic among high school and collegiate debates but putting it in the context of intellectual property was unique.

McCabe began the debate by affirming that “the government is obligated to protect its citizens.” Her introductory remarks included defensive statements, saying Adler would argue the motion would stifle innovation. McCabe provided five counterpoints to this, including that new innovations would retain prestige value.

“The benefits (of eminent domain) can be achieved by government subsidies or direct government purchase of the licensing fees of the property,” Adler said at the start of his speech.

At the end of the 25 minute final round, the judges decided which competitor they believed was more persuasive in his or her argumentation.

“I’ve never judged a debate in my life,” said Paxson, who had been asked by Sanders to judge the competition. The other two judges said they had judged the Hicks debate in years past.

“I’m always looking forward to it,” Baum-Snow said. Sanders said a lot of faculty members want to judge because “(they) are really interested in this type of skill and to see the ability of Brown students’ minds at work at high caliber.”

After five minutes, the judges wrote their respective verdicts on Post-It notes and handed them to Sanders.

“In a 2-1 decision, Jean is the winner,” Sanders announced.

McCabe, who won the competition last year, said she will probably use the second lump of prize money to pay her rent. She participated in Lincoln-Douglas debate throughout high school and was a semi-finalist last year in the American Parliamentary Debate Association national competition, in which she will compete again next month.


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