The UR Debate Union’s performance in the East Region District Championships propelled their No. 1 varsity team of junior Buddy Khan and senior Ben Wittwer to a top seed in the “District 8” division of the National Debate Tournament. Their argument on the season’s topic of “Resolved: The United States Supreme Court should overrule one or more of the following decisions: Planned Parenthood v. Casey; Ex parte Quirin; U.S. v. Morrison; Milliken v. Bradley” won them the open division of the tournament.

“This was a historic moment for the team,” Director of Forensics and Head Coach of the Debate Union Ken Johnson said. “We’ve done well before at the district tournament, but, in all the years we’ve been attending, we’ve never won the open division before.”

Khan and Wittwer entered as underdogs and beat teams from Dartmouth College, Boston College, West Point Military Academy and Cornell University. They will be traveling to Dallas, Texas on March 28. Only 72 individual teams receive an invitation to the tournament.

The team of senior Ally Bieber and freshman Kevin Diamond placed third in the novice division at the East Region Championships.

The Debate Union has been in existence in some form since the University’s creation. The first forensic society was formed two days before the institution opened in 1850. Johnson has coached at UR since 2000, and he is currently in his second year as director.

The Debate Union is one of the largest policy debate teams in the country. Approximately 50 students have traveled to debate tournaments. Previous debate experience is not required.

The Debate Union’s greatest success of the season came at the 19th annual Forensics Festival hosted by Binghamton University. In the Varsity division, Khan was named the top overall speaker, Witter was named third individual speaker and junior David Merkle was named fifth speaker. The duo of Khan and Witter took first as a team in this competition as well.

In the junior varsity division, sophomore Jason Gershowitz was named second speaker and senior Brett Stark was named third. As a team, they placed third overall after defeating West Point in the quarterfinals.

In the novice division, freshman Tamara Slater and sophomore Olivia Pedersen placed third overall.

“All of the debate team’s tournament goals were fulfilled – every team won at least one debate,” Johnson said. “What was uncommon about the Binghamton tournament was that we had team-wide success.”

Even debaters attending their first competition came through with at least one win.

“Usually it takes a couple tournaments to figure out the ins-and-outs of the debate topic, the rules and procedures of policy debate, the individual quirks of judges, etc.,” Johnson said. “Even when you finally figure it out, your opponent will switch up their argument to keep you off balance.”

While the Debate Union had some success last semester, it was somewhat inconsistent. Its real accomplishments have just begun.

“Binghamton really signaled a turning point for our season,” Johnson said. “Our debaters worked really hard over the winter break and their effort was rewarded.”

The team is entering the final phase of its season with multiple regional and national tournaments in the upcoming weeks. The Debate Union won the Junior Varsity National Championship last year, and they will be returning to this competition to defend their title. The team also plans to attend the Cross Examination Debate Association National Championship, and Khan and Witter will be representing UR at the National Debate Tournament.

Philbrick is a member of the class of 2009.

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