by Bob Overing

Disclosure theory is the argument that a debater should lose for failing to upload case tags and citations to the NDCA Wiki. Variations on the argument ask the judge to drop debaters who post incomplete citations, who only upload citations and not full-text or ‘open-source’ evidence, or who fail to tell the opponent what case they’ll read before the debate begins.

It’s difficult to say exactly where the LD community stands on disclosure and disclosure theory. A year ago, we ran a survey on whether debaters are disclosing, and 57% of about 200 respondents said that they did not disclose at all. Someone more interested in the empirical question could go through major tournament entry pools and find their disclosure on the wiki. Figuring out whether debaters disclose, however, is much easier than measuring judge views on disclosure.

Many judges have very strong negative attitudes about disclosure theory. I ran a search for “disclosure” on the judgephilosophies wikispace website and found a number of hardline paradigmatic stances against disclosure theory. There’s certainly a selection bias at work here: Those who write about it in the paradigms are likely to have a stronger stance than those who don’t. And I also suspect it’s dying out – that more recent high school graduates are less opposed to disclosure theory than judges who graduated 3-5 years ago – but I’m speculating without much empirical support.

Nonetheless, at least thirty or forty LD judges who have judged in the past two seasons have negative attitudes about disclosure theory. To get any idea of what I’m talking about, look at these quotes from judge paradigms found on the judgephilosophies wiki (accessed 9-29-15):

  • “There are no arguments that I will inherently reject if you run them. The exception is disclosure theory which…will give a loss and minimum speaks instantly”
  • “I don’t like disclosure theory, or any other argument that brings a ‘political’ issue in the debate community into the round. I won’t reject these arguments on face, but I’ll probably want to”
  • “I wont evaluate arguments about behaviors that happened out side of the round ie: disclosure theory, I dont feel comfortable voting a particular way inside of a round based on something that happened out side of it. Additionally these debates tend to become personal, awkward, and sometimes it is impossible for me to verify that the out of round behavior actually happened”
  • “I won’t vote on disclosure theory or any sort of genocide good mindset”
  • “I will never vote for disclosure theory. UPDATE: You will get a loss 20 in front of me if you run disclosure theory”
  • “I will not vote on disclosure theory”

These judges are by no means alone. In a quick search, I found at least 35 judges who have stated negative attitudes ranging from ‘I don’t like but will vote on it” to ‘I hate disclosure theory and will never vote on it’. Many of these judges will deviate from the tabula rasa default, tank speaker points, and even drop debaters just for reading the argument. One judge even mentioned disclosure theory in the same breath as “genocide good” arguments. Wow! Another judge on a TOC elim panel last year disregarded a person’s entire strategy for paradigmatic reasons about disclosure.

Given that most judges as a default let the debaters debate what they will (the tabula rasa approach), we should think about what, if anything, makes disclosure theory unique.

I believe that disclosure theory is just like any other argument, and that judges should evaluate it as such. In this post, I isolate and object to three arguments for the paradigmatic stance against disclosure theory: 1) that it deals with an out-of-round practice and is therefore beyond a judge’s jurisdiction and/or unverifiable, 2) that it is too controversial to be fairly adjudicated, and 3) that disclosure theory is bad because disclosure itself is bad.

Is Disclosure Theory Too “Out-of-Round?”

A number of paradigms reference disclosure theory in the same breath as arguments like “must flip before the round theory” that deal with events or interactions outside of the debate round. I see two possible arguments here: one about judge jurisdiction and another about verification. The jurisdiction argument claims that evaluating an event or interaction outside of the debate is beyond the judge’s jurisdiction, and disclosure theory does just that.

My main objection is conceptual. I don’t believe that judge paradigms should take hardline stances on what is or is not within the judge’s jurisdiction. The debaters should have a chance to argue the limits of judge jurisdiction within the debate. John Scoggin and I recently wrote a piece defending in part the many diverse ways that debaters choose to debate (so did Ben Koh and Rebar Niemi). I will not rehash the arguments here, but it seems to me that a disadvantage of the interventionist approach to disclosure theory is that it lend credence to views like those of Branse and Nebel which have major drawbacks. The benefits of letting the debaters define the judge’s jurisdiction are many – argumentative innovation and creativity, debate theory education, the promotion of non-traditional literature bases. These benefits certainly outweigh any reasons to adopt such a narrow view of judge jurisdiction.

But you might think I’m skirting the issue. If I reject all judge-imposed jurisdictional constraints, then of course I reject the “out-of-round” argument. So let’s problematize it more specifically.

My second objection is that disclosure theory does not deal with “out-of-round” arguments anyway. The violation on a disclosure theory argument is that the opponent read an undisclosed argument, which is something that happens in the debate round. She made a choice in the round to do that. She could have decided to read an unbroken position, to make up a new case, or to read no evidence at all – all of which certain disclosure interpretations would allow.

One might respond that there is also an out-of-round component. An interaction before the debate started would affect the violation within the debate. But this applies to all theory and topicality arguments. Had the opponent written a different affirmative before the debate started, the violation debate on T might turn out differently. I see no important distinction on these grounds. Disclosure theory indicts an out-of-round practice (failing to disclose) for its in-round effects (poor clash, quality ground, etc.). Likewise, topicality indicts an out-of-round practice (failing to research and write a topical affirmative) for its in-round effects (poor clash, quality ground, etc.).

The parallel demonstrates that disclosure is either an “in-round” issue — so we’d allow it by default — or an “out-of-round” issue just like T and theory, which we allow — so we should allow disclosure too.

The second way to interpret the prejudice against “out-of-round” practices is a worry about verifiability. How can a debater prove disclosure? I take it that wiki disclosure is fairly straightforward: Debaters can show the judge the wiki on their computer or via printout or ask the judge to check the wiki. The tough cases are proving what debaters said when asked, “What’s the aff?” When a dispute arises, debaters can make arguments in favor of their story’s credibility or even show a written record (e.g. they asked online or they asked the opponent to write down the plan text, for instance). It’s not impossible to do, and there are other ways to engage beyond debating the violation. Debaters can make weighing arguments, argue for a different theory threshold for tough-to-verify violations, or try to establish superior ethos. It’s not about just taking one side’s word for it. Further, even if it is difficult to debate, why should that make it an unacceptable debate argument? It’s difficult to really answer epistemic skepticism, but we allow it. Finally, judges who worry about “verifying” how someone disclosed before the debate show a serious lack of trust in these high school students. If they’re going to lie, they’re going to lie, and it’s not a problem with disclosure – students can make up evidence, empirical references, or cheat their opponents in a multitude of ways. But we have no reason to presume that debaters would lie about disclosure online or before a debate. If a dispute arises, let the debaters do what they do best and debate it out!

Is Disclosure Theory Too Controversial?

If a judge feels unable to fairly evaluate a debate because (s)he is too ideological, then (s)he should notify the debaters. I don’t think this justifies excluding a class of theory arguments, however. If debaters want to buck the judge’s paradigmatic leanings, let’s let them try.

It’s bizarre to me that a judge could have such an ideological view on a debate theory matter that it would lead to writing “I will intervene against X” or “I hate X and will never vote on it” in a judge paradigm. Yes, disclosure has been controversial, but so have been plans, kritiks, necessary-but-insufficient burdens, and RVIs. Far fewer judges completely exclude these from their calculi.

My guess is that the vitriol with which these judges oppose disclosure theory is tied to some specific negative experience or association with the argument. There are some related antagonisms in the debate community. Maybe disclosure is seen as a tactic by “big schools” used to dominate “small schools.” Maybe disclosure is seen as an import from policy debate that doesn’t belong in LD. This last explanation may be worth more discussion. My search of judge paradigms turned up a clear divide between LD judges and policy judges on the issue. At least 22 judges made positive comments about disclosure in their paradigms and some granted extra speaker points for good disclosure practices. These judges are primarily policy judges, and many of the ones who aren’t have experience debating policy or come from a high school program with a competitive policy squad. Maybe disclosure is a symbol of an (unwanted) encroachment from policy debate. I don’t think such a fear is justified, but I am grasping at straws for a rational explanation for the extreme anti-disclosure stance.

Is Disclosure Theory Bad Because Disclosure is Bad?

It’s possible that disclosure is so bad that judges should do their best to discourse its practice. This could include intervening against teams that read disclosure theory and tanking their speaker points.

I take it that most everyone agrees that there is a strong presumption against this sort of stance except for blatantly offensive rhetoric. If these judges are generally tabula rasa judges, they need to believe that disclosure is on par in its destructiveness with using racial epithets and the like. These are the only available exceptions to tabula rasa judging.

I’m highly skeptical of any arguments that disclosure theory is on par with blatantly offensive argumentation. For one, I think disclosure is good. I’ve voted against disclosure arguments and I’ve voted for them, but my personal belief is that disclosure is a net good for many of the reasons spelled out here. Given that many think it’s good, and it has been successful in the policy community for quite some time, there is a high burden of proof for the anti-disclosure-theory people. The most common worry I’ve heard is the disproportionate burden disclosure could have on smaller LD programs, but I don’t think this argument is strong enough to override the presumption against judge intervention. Meta-ethics, plans, and kritiks may also disproportionately harm smaller LD programs, but we allow debaters to make the argument on both sides.

Two, I don’t think there’s a very tangible impact to voting on disclosure theory. The ‘norms’ argument for voting on specific theory shells has a spotty empirical track record. Plans bad theory can be heard at almost any LD bid tournament, and yet plans are ubiquitous on this topic. I’ve coached debaters who have won some of the most asinine theory arguments, and I’m quite glad there has been no norm-adjustment as a result.

Finally, I think judges should ignore such pragmatic reasons for voting one way or another. The tabula rasa approach tasks judges with evaluating the debaters’ arguments and nothing else. If I were concerned about the potential effects of my decisions, they might turn out quite differently. A debater could blackmail the judge, saying that if they lose on X theory argument, they promise to just read the unfair argument even more! Norm-setting allows for these and other very silly arguments. Judges should ignore the ‘effects’ of their decision absent very strong reasons like “this debater said something racist and should not be allowed to continue in elims because they might offend even more people.” I’ve written more about norm-setting in the comments section here.


This post has attempted to examine a common feature of some LD judge paradigms and consider its merits. I don’t think any of the three arguments I’ve covered is successful in defending an anti-disclosure-theory paradigmatic stance. I may be missing some of the reasons for the view or poorly characterizing the opposition’s arguments. These are real possibilities given that there is no published defense of the stance to my knowledge (other than the paradigms themselves). Please comment below! I’m very interested in hearing from some of these judges on why they view disclosure theory so negatively.


Bob Overing | Co-Director



Bob is a co-director of Premier, coach for Loyola in Los Angeles, and debater for the USC Trojan Debate Squad. As a senior in high school, he was ranked #1, earned 11 bids and took 2nd at TOC. In college, he cleared at CEDA and qualified to the NDT. His students have earned 60 career bids, reached TOC finals, and won many championships.