Dear Ohio Speech and Debate Community:
As I opened my Facebook three days after Christmas, an item from Poland Seminary coach Jodi West caught my eye. Her post linked to a petition from former competitors in the Virginia High School League (VHSL, the state speech and debate organization) asking the League leadership to move the state speech and debate tournament from Liberty University, the private school that has hosted the event for the past several years. The petitioners were responding to comments made by Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. in which he encouraged his students to carry weapons as protection against the perceived threat from Muslims. Falwell later qualified his words – “If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in” (1) – to refer only to “Muslim terrorists”, not to all Muslims. But for the petitioners, the implication of Falwell’s words, however qualified, was all too clear: Muslims are not welcome at Liberty University.
The first four-time state qualifier I ever coached was a young woman named Alefiyah. Her parents, devout Sunni Muslims, had emigrated from India in their twenties. When Alefiyah was in ninth grade, her mother began judging Lincoln-Douglas debate, and continued as a regular judge even after her daughter went on to college four years later. When I attended Alefiyah’s graduation party, I was embraced by her parents, who warmly introduced me to each of the many family members who had traveled from far to be part of the celebration. Today Alefiyah is in her second year as an Elementary School teacher, working at one of the most under-privileged schools in one of the most impoverished urban school districts in the nation.
A few years later I coached Tannaz, an outstanding Extemper whose Shia Muslim parents had been born in Iran. In Tannaz’s junior and senior years, I had the opportunity to take my team to a few tournaments out of state, and before every flight Tannaz was “randomly selected” for a full security check. The third time this happened, I spoke to one of the TSA agents, asking how this seventeen-year-old girl could be singled out each time she flew. But Tannaz stopped me, saying simply that the same thing happened to her entire family whenever they traveled and that they had learned it was best just to accept it. Today Tannaz is in her final year of medical school, preparing to enter residency next fall.
When I think of Muslims, the people I think of are Alefiyah and Tannaz and the many other Muslim students I have coached and taught over the years. I want to believe that when my Muslim students – when any of my students – have entered a speech and debate tournament anywhere in Ohio, they were welcomed just as warmly as I was welcomed by Alefiyah’s parents at her graduation party. I want to believe that we, those responsible for speech and debate competition and education in Ohio, would never make any student feel unsafe or unwelcome because of who they are. I want to believe that speech and debate are activities where we can respect and consider diverse people and perspectives without bias and fear.
Earlier this season our Public Forum debaters took up a resolution on the current refugee crisis stemming from the Syrian conflict. Our debaters argued this topic with passion, but without the xenophobic paranoia that has become so prevalent in political discourse in our nation. Coincidentally, the next topic our Lincoln-Douglas debaters will confront has to do with weapons, and I know they too will avoid the irrational tub-thumping that surrounds that issue in other arenas. Each week our Extempers tackle complex questions of politics and policy, and the adults who judge their speeches manage to leave their own opinions and biases at the door, evaluating only the consistency and support of the content and the effectiveness with which it was delivered. Our young
Congressional Debaters quickly learn that speeches that play into fear and prejudice will not be well-received by judges or, more importantly, by more-experienced competitors. Speech and debate are activities where we consider ideas – sometimes difficult ones – but maintain our commitment to the dignity of every student and adult who participates as competitor, coach, or official. As interscholastic activities, speech and debate are absolutely unique in this respect.
Of course there have been missteps. A few years ago, the NSDA (then the NFL) released a Public Forum topic having to do with the construction of a Mosque in New York City. Almost immediately a chorus of adults and students from around the country pushed back against the choice, objecting to the idea that Islam itself was singled out in the resolution. Why, they asked, did the resolution specify “Mosque” if the authors did not mean to imply that there is something uniquely problematic about Islam? Within days the organization rescinded the topic, and subsequently put in place processes to more thoroughly weigh the implications of resolutions before they are released. Sometimes mistakes can bring progress.
The current situation in Virginia is not too far different from that. Though Falwell and Liberty may contend that all are welcome on their campus, Falwell’s words clearly suggest that the opposite is true. So it is clear to me that the state organization must act by removing the Virginia state speech and debate tournament from the Liberty University campus. When any person or entity connected to speech and debate – however tangential that connection may be – would make any participant feel unsafe or unwelcome due to their identity, it is time for the state’s governing body to say goodbye. I know that is what we would do in Ohio, and I hope the VHSL acts accordingly, opting for progress in making all participants feel more fully embraced by the activity and the organization that oversees it in their state.
This is what I know about the Ohio High School Speech League. We are committed to the worth of every student and adult who participates in speech and debate in our state. We believe that speech and debate enrich intellectual and social development, and we will work tirelessly to make these activities available to any school that wishes to participate. We will welcome all students, coaches, and officials regardless of race, creed, identity, origin, orientation, or ability. We expect all who participate in our programs to comport to the highest ethical standards and to treat every other participant with the utmost respect. We will not affiliate ourselves with any person or organization that would do otherwise.
Each time I attend a tournament in Ohio, I stand in awe of the talent and camaraderie of our students, the generosity of our judges, the commitment of our coaches, and the wisdom of our district and state leaders. I know how hard the state and district leadership have worked to make speech and debate accessible to schools and students throughout Ohio; I know how firmly committed the entire state organization is to the dignity and worth of every participant. I am confident that we welcome all to participate in speech and debate in our state, and it remains my greatest wish that we will always continue to do so.
In that spirit, I wish you all a safe, healthy, and prosperous New Year.
Chair of the Executive Committee, Ohio High School Speech League