Public Forum

September/October 2016 Public Forum Topic Analysis – Probable Cause

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Video Transcript

Hello I’m Nikko and after a long summer welcome back to Debate Clash, we’re dedicated to providing forensics resources to every student that needs them. If you want to learn, you should have the ability to.

In this video we’ll be looking at the resolution Resolved: In United States public K-12 schools, the probable cause standard ought to apply to searches of students. We’ll start by defining what the resolution is talking about and then addressing the major arguments you’ll be seeing this March.

Keep in mind that this video is purely for brainstorming purposes only. Please do not use Debate Clash as source in your rounds.


Defining the resolution.

The first portion of the resolution “In United States public k-12 schools” identifies that we will be talking about the US and public schools specifically. The aff does not have to support probable cause in private schools or anything international.

The second portion of the resolution “the probable cause standard” is a bit more complicated. The 4th amendment outlines that you can’t be searched unreasonably unless probable cause exists. The 4th amendment is probable cause’s father. They don’t want to be separated. Look up the 4th amendment, print it out, and have it with you in rounds.

I would love to tell you exactly what probable cause is and the standards to meet it. Unfortunately it doesn’t have a solid definition. Kind of awkward for the law not to be defined all the way, but not completely out of the norm. And what do we do when laws are confusing? We turn to the courts.

Looks up court cases associated with probable cause to get a better understanding of it. In its most simplistic form probable cause exists when there is a fair or good chance that a search will result in evidence of a crime being discovered.

This is different from the status quo as depending on the state they don’t have to have probable cause to search your locker, backpack, etc. Currently they rely on “reasonable suspicion.” Find a solid definition and strap in.

The next part of the resolution “ought” can mean an abundance of things as well. The most common definition of “ought” that I’ve seen on the circuit in past topics is that it is asking us what the most moral or ethical thing to do is.

“Apply to searches of students” is a bit broader than its initial appearance. This identifies searches of students, searches of their lockers, and could even be argued to reach out to searches of student’s cars and phones.

The resolution in a nutshell: The affirmative thinks that administrators and police should be required to have a better reason to search students in public schools.


Major Affirmative Arguments

The major Affirmative arguments this month can be classified into 4 categories. Legal, Moral, Impacts to society, and work arounds. Let’s jump to the first category – Legal arguments.

We know that the Probable Cause standard come from the 4th amendment. What doesn’t exist in the 4th amendment is a clause that reads, “this doesn’t apply if you’re a minor.” Or if you’re in a public school or if you’re wearing a Donald Trump hat.

In the incredibly controversial Supreme Court case “Tinker v Des Moines” the court ruled that these particular students were allowed to wear black armbands to protest the vietnam war in school. Why? Because they were protected under the first amendment to the constitution – they have free speech just like you, me, and the Trump.

Now this case sets a precedent and proves that minors in school can still exercise their rights under the constitution. If the court upheld the first amendment in a public school there is no reason they shouldn’t uphold the 4th.

You’re going to want to read up on this case. It revolutionized student’s rights in public schools. Just like Debate Clash is going to revolutionize debate resources. Oh! But seriously hit that subscribe button already.

Another interesting part of the educational system that should be observed is that for most K-12 individuals they don’t have a choice of whether or not to attend a public school. And in the status quo that means they don’t really have a choice of exercising their 4th amendment rights or not. They are being forced into an environment where they are not protected. Not cool government.

Now some negative teams may argue, “If students really don’t want to give up their rights they can go to a private school that preserves them.” And they are absolutely correct. The only problem is that the students that can afford to go to private schools are the affluent ones.

Building a system where poor students are forced to give up their rights, but rich ones aren’t required to breeds unfairness, spits in the face of equality, and is exceptional immoral.

Speaking of morality, let’s jump into our second affirmative category.


The second category is Moral arguments.

Remember, the resolution is asking us what ‘Ought’ we do. There are numerous definitions out there that link ‘Ought’ with ethics, value, or morals. Get one or several of those. Just like republican presidential candidates, you can never have too many.

Now, once you have a definition proving that ought indicates a moral decision we can use that to supercharge our moral arguments.

The first argument is one that many of you probably thought of. Without Probable Cause student’s rights to privacy are infringed. With a nice vague definition of reasonable suspicion administrators can check your bags, your lockers, heck they can even check your student emails. You can ask Clinton how obnoxious it is when you have people monitoring your emails.

You should be able to go to school without having to be frisked at the door or your bag emptied anytime an administrator wants to check it without any justification. It is not moral to force students into an environment like this and it is not moral to take away one’s right to privacy.

This is a great argument if run correctly. Define the resolution as a moral question, give several warranted reasons why privacy is the most important ‘value’ to cherish, find examples in the status quo of this being infringed in public schools, and show how Probable Cause would would save the day.

Along those lines you can also argue that without Probable Cause student’s values and beliefs have been infringed. This could be forcing a student to remove a religious article of clothing without probable cause.

Because administrators don’t really need reason to search students this could also perpetuate racism. In the current system they don’t need justification to search. They won’t be questioned. If students are being searched more due to the color of their skin, ‘reasonable suspicion’ without ‘probable cause’ is to blame.

There is also a branch of philosophy called ‘epistemology.’ Hey that rhymes.

Epistemology in a very simple form questions where knowledge came from and how we attain it. This could be a very interesting branch of philosophy to look into for this topic. What are the effects of taking away a young child’s rights to privacy? What does that teach them for the future? How will their attitude change? Is this moral to force all of our children through?


The third category is the effects on society

The first thing that probable cause does is increase the legitimacy of the police and school administrators. They won’t be searching student’s without probable cause! This has a positive effect on the student police relationship within schools and could arguable decrease crime through mutual respect.

This also decreases the amount of students getting expelled or sent to juvenile detention for low or no harm crimes. Maybe a student just got back from a camping trip and happen to have matches or a lighter in their backpack.

An unwarranted search might find these in the student’s bag forcing the student to be treated like a criminal, expelled from school, and sent to a juvenile detention center. That student is now going to live a drastically different life.

This may be an exaggerated chain of events, but I encourage you to lookup stories or stats of these detention centers, if students go there from unreasonable searches,  and what happens to children that attend.

There is also this argument going around that without probable cause student’s perceptions of their rights is askew. When you are young and taught to not exercise your constitutional rights that leads to them not exercising their rights in the future.

Voter turnout would get better with Probable Cause, because adults were raised with a respect for rights they might be less likely to infringe upon others, or be abused by the system themselves. Essentially you get access to any impact that come as a result of individuals exercising their rights.

This type of argument will be very hard to run, you’ve been warned.

A lot of the arguments in this section addresses top level links. It’s your job to bring them to an impact level and really explain to the judge how these affect education, our crime rates, our rights, and so on.


The final category for the affirmative is the work arounds

First off, you can run a framework argument saying that the affirmative’s burden is to simply prove that Probable Cause is better than the status quo. The resolution isn’t asking us the best system to use it’s asking us whether Probable Cause would positively affect our educational system.

This is a good framework argument to decrease the burden of proof for the affirmative while preemptively rejecting the negative’s ability to bring up counter plans.

You can also go after the moral framework arguments. As discussed in the previous section defining ‘ought’ as a moral obligation could be beneficial for your arguments that talk about privacy, beliefs, and so on.

You can also argue that the resolution isn’t asking us about the enforcement of Probable Cause. If they start arguing that the 10th amendment says that education belongs to states and not the federal government to control you can direct them to the resolution that says ‘ought’ or in other words, would this be a good idea.


Major Negative Arguments

The first category for negative arguments is constitutionality and the law.

Everyone has heard some variation of the phrase you give up some rights to get others. When you go to an airport, take off your shoes, and let them screen you, you are giving up some of your rights to privacy and getting safety in return.

This is the mentality schools should have. Students are legally obligated to go to school! These building should be 100% safe.

The government’s first priority is to protect the people let’s not forget that because some students find that it’s an inconvenience to get their lockers inspected every other month.

The other argument you can make is that a very large majority of K-12 students are minors! If they bring a weapon to school they won’t be tried as an adult. They won’t see the full effects of the law. It just makes sense that if the entirely of the law doesn’t apply to them than certain rights specifically the 4th amendment should also be relinquished.

There is probably a much prettier and logical way to phrase that, but hopefully you got the concept.

One could also argue that legally the lockers that student’s use are the school’s property. They shouldn’t need Probable Cause to get into something they legally own. This principle could also apply to searches of cars in the school’s parking lot or desks that students keep their belongings in.

The second category for the negative is Moral arguments.

It should come as no surprise at this point that ‘ought’ is generally interpreted to indicate ‘morality.’ So let’s talk about what the negative can do in this area.

First, because the negative is pushing for staff to be able to search more students with less reason there will inevitably be more security. A good debater can turn more security into lives saved. Preserving life is a pretty strong moral argument.

To assist with the life arguments many debaters will also bring up the probably over-used, but oh so applicable branch of philosophy – Utilitarianism or the greatest utility for the greatest amount of people.

One could also argue that Probable Cause changes people’s mindsets and coerces administrators into perceiving students as criminals. If I’m an administrator and I have suspicion that a student might have a weapon in their backpack instead of just checking I legally get to think in my head of all the reasons this student is suspicious and could be a criminal.

Creating a system where administrators and police have to justify their searches could change the attitude of the entire school for the worse.

Along these lines race, gender, and religion could also play into reasons that an administrator thinks they have probable cause. Or at least allows them to think about those things before searching a student. Bringing these is is definitely immoral!

With Probable Cause decreasing security measures at public schools this could also increase the inequality between the rich and poor more than it already is. Private schools would become much more secure while the opposite happens in public schools.

This is placing a price on children’s lives and is unfair for the system to uphold.


The third category for the negative is the effect that Probable Cause would have on society.

With such strict regulations being put into place about when you can and can’t search a student and when a warrant is needed or not this will lead to a lot of confusion. And not just the I woke up from a 3 hour nap and can’t tell if unicorns are real or not kind of confusion.

Legal confusion means student officials and officers getting into trouble. Legal defenses add up, organization in the education system decreases as teachers are temporarily suspended, the perception of teachers and staff decrease, and money comes out of the education system’s budget for these things.

This could also lead to less crimes being caught. Staff would refrain from searching as to not get in trouble by not meeting the probable cause standard. With less crimes being looked out for it means the risk of students performing criminal activity skyrockets.

Along the lines of security some searches may require warrants! By the time an officer can get a warrant the damage might have already been done!

And finally cyberbullying could increase with Probable Cause in place. This would make it harder to monitor as students have no fear that an official would ever search their electronic devices or look into a potential problem.


The last category is, you guessed it – Work Arounds

The affirmative has to defend a resolution that identifies all searches of students. Not just some. You as the negative could technically argue that just cars or just electronic devices should require probable cause. Or anything that isn’t school property.

Although this sounds fun, you need to be very good at the framework debate to win off of this and it may lead to some pretty bad rounds which no one enjoys.

One could also argue that the resolution isn’t asking us whether it should be implemented and compared against the status quo or anything else, but is asking us as an independent variable is Probable Cause moral or ethical?

Another argument that I think is very true is that Probable Cause is just too blurry to be fully diagnosed as ‘moral.’ The supreme court has defined it in so many different ways and has even said that Probable Cause takes into account each individual situation to see if it exists.

It’s like me saying ‘humans are moral’. Okay… Probably a little vague and just like Probable Cause each human is different. Blanket statements don’t work on variables that are constantly changing!

And even if Probable Cause was magically diagnosed as moral in every instance is it really moral to have the staff of schools rely on this unclear criteria?



  1. Define Probable Cause in the cross examination. If you want to have a good debate and want your judge to also like the debate you will need to come to a middle ground on what Probable Cause is before the round gets too far.
  2. Talk to your LD friends. They are used to debate morality and philosophy. Converse and get lots of great ideas.
  3. Ask questions. Just looking into this topic online I found acronyms galore! Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know off the top of your head the strange branch of philosophy they bring up or crazy jargon. You can’t defeat a point if you don’t know what it means.


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