Sunday, September 4, 2016

PF Sep/Oct 2016 - Probable Cause Search of Students - Introduction

Resolved: In United States public K-12 schools, the probable cause standard ought to apply to searches of students.


This will be the first resolution debated by the "novices" in our district. It is a topic that questions how to resolve the conflicts which may arise between student rights to privacy, autonomy and liberty versus the school system obligation to provide for safety, reasonable care, and education of students. With a little rewording, it could be a pretty good Lincoln-Douglas debate topic, since one can look at the easy-to-understand principles of privacy on one side and utilitarianism on the other side. In Public Forum debate, both sides are required to take a position of advocacy.  This means both the Pro and the Con must argue in favor of a position. Be aware, that arguing FOR something is quite different than arguing 'AGAINST' something.  Pro will claim, as the resolution says, a precondition defined as the "probable-cause standard" must be met before a school system has the right to search a student. It is not enough for Con to merely claim, the probable-cause standard ought not be applied. While this refutes (poorly) the Pro position, it does not advocate a position. It would be very difficult, for example, for the Con to argue that schools may arbitrarily and without any cause, conduct searches of students or their property which may be assumed if Con fails to advocate a position apart from only refuting Pro. Con must establish a position which goes beyond merely saying Pro is wrong.  Con must take a position which explains not only why probable-cause may not be sufficient but also what "standard" is better at ensuring that the school system can uphold the public trust to which it is responsible. When students begin to research this topic they will discover there have been plenty of court challenges already decided on this topic and so there may be an inclination to believe the matter has already been decided and so either the Pro or the Con is guaranteed victory on the basis of what has already been decided.  But rarely is the law so absolute. Legal scholars are constantly challenging court decisions and court decisions are often overturned. Therefore, both sides should be able to find plenty of good arguments to support their positions.

Another important aspect of debate, is that idea that one side (usually the Pro) presents a challenge to the status quo (the way things currently are).  In this case, the implication is, currently the probable-cause standard is not applied by school systems, for some reason or another. Perhaps, because the courts have ruled another standard is sufficient. Therefore, the Pro, for reasons which will be explained in the Pro case, will take a position the current standard needs to be replaced. Perhaps, for example, the Pro will argue, the probable-cause standard is better at protecting student rights, whatever those rights may be. Con, on the other hand, may advocate the standards applied in the status quo are working so there is no need to change it. Taking this position is advocating a position which goes beyond merely refuting Pro.

About Everyday Debate

For those who are new to Everyday Debate, you should know a few things.  First, I have been a debate coach for about nine years and a debate judge for about eleven years. The Public Forum Debate style in our state is traditional. I currently coach a team which keeps me busy enough.  I also, have a fifty hour-per-week job apart from the school system where I train students. I try to maintain this blog as a public service to the debate community.  I do it in my spare time and believe me, I don't have a lot of spare time and often I will fall behind. I apologize in advance. As resolutions are introduced by the National Speech and Debate Association, I will typically publish three posts.  First, an introductory post which gives topic background and definitions for the resolution. (You are reading one now.) This is followed by the Pro and Con positions. In debate, evidence is important in helping a debater establish grounds for her position, so I usually present plenty of evidence and I will give you all of my sources which will almost always be readily available to any Internet users without need for subscriptions or member services. You may use any of my sources as long as you also provide the citations, and you may use any of my ideas for positions.  You should not directly quote my words. You should also be aware I tend to take the ideas only so far.  Read the sources and do a little reading between the lines and you may be able to realize some really powerful positions.  Just take the extra steps and look beneath the surface. You should also know Everyday Debate is happy to receive your comments and questions.  I do answer nearly every legitimate question.  However, any comments which are outside of the purpose of this blog are subject to deletion.  Also, every comment you make is forwarded to me. This includes comments which are made on obscure past, posts, and comments which you decide to delete on your own.  I see them all so I just ask you keep your involvement with this blog respectful and on topic. Thank you.

Topic Definitions

In United States
It is always important for a debate resolution to provide some kind of scope or context.  In this case, we are given "United States" which is important to understand we will not be debating, a topic which is applicable to Canada, or France or any other locale.  The United States, generally means within the context of the federal government and the fifty states. Of course, you may still use other nations as examples, but in this particular topic, the scope of this resolution with respect to the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and so-called American values, makes it likely there is little to be gained by looking to examples outside of the U.S.

public K-12 schools
The use of this terminology serves to further narrow the scope of the debate. K-12 schools are schools which cover kindergarten through 12th grade. From this, we understand the students affected are generally minors under the age of 18. The use of the word public, means we are limiting the debate discussion to public schools.  Public schools are funded by local, state and federal government money provided through the collection of taxes and levies. Private schools are not bound by the same laws and regulations as public schools so it is important to make the distinction in the resolution.

the probable cause standard
For this definition, I refer to the Wex legal dictionary of the Cornell University law School.

Probable cause is a requirement found in the Fourth Amendment that must usually be met before police make an arrest, conduct a search, or receive a warrant.  Courts usually find probable cause when there is a reasonable basis for believing that a crime may have been committed (for an arrest) or when evidence of the crime is present in the place to be searched (for a search).

As stated by Wex, probable cause is a kind of nebulous and imprecise concept which the courts have attempted to clarify through the last two and half centuries or more.  One standard often applied by courts in many kinds of legal decisions, is what would be the position of most "reasonable and prudent" individuals when presented with such a situation? With respect to searches, Wex tells us under the probable cause standard, "there is a fair probability that a search will result in evidence of a crime being discovered". This is best explained by an example. Under the probable cause standard, a student's backpack may not be searched just because a school official suspects the student is carrying contraband. Under this standard, suspicion is insufficient cause to believe contraband may exist in the backpack.  However, if a school official happens to see contraband clearly visible in the student's backpack, then a search may be warranted since any reasonable or prudent person would agree there is a high probability that evidence for a crime will be discovered.  This will be discussed at length in the Pro and Con positions.

For the most part, for the purposes of this resolution we can define ought to be synonymous with an emphatic should; a very firm should. However, for the Pro position, it means MUST. It is not intended to be a suggestion, nor is it intended to be applied sometimes or even most of the time.  The probable cause standard must always be applied.

to apply
The meaning of this verb should be fairly obvious in the context of the resolution. To apply means, should be utilized, or put into action.

searches of students
A search is a focused and thorough "looking" for something or someone. For this topic, it means certain authorities looking for evidence by accessing the personal or private spaces of students.

Prelude to Positions

Perhaps most people can understand a student locker is school property and so the school may reserve the right to open it at any time. However there may be limitations on the rights of the school to open or search a student's personal property which is stored in the locker.  Items like backpacks or purses which the student brings into the school may be considered private property, and certainly, the student's clothing and body are personal spaces.  So this resolution deals with the conditions under which the school is legally permitted to intrude upon those spaces. This debate is not about whether or not certain laws or rules which constitute crimes or violations justifying searches are reasonable or constitutional. Let's just keep this first debate of the season focused on the topic at hand.  I will discuss the Pro and Con positions in much greater detail in the coming days.

To access this or any past topics and to get general information about case-writing and how to do a debate, click the Public Forum tab at the top of this page.

Wex Legal Dictionary, "Probable Cause", (undated) Legal Information Institute (LII), Cornell University School of Law. Accessed 9/4/2016 at:


  1. Thank you for all the research you share. It is always helpful to me and I recommend it to my debate team.

  2. I would like to thank you as well. I always stop by your blog to see how you have analyzed the current topics. Your analyses are simple and direct, which is very appreciated.

  3. I am glad to freely contribute what I can to the community and your encouragement helps keep me motivated. Thanks to both of you as well.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. very nice detailed description!! keep up the good work!

  6. I really appreciate your simplistic, yet thoughtful analyses for each PF topic. Looking forward to the next one!


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