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December 1, 2016

Winning Topicality against Small Affs

By Adam Tomasi

In my second year of college Policy Debate, I've found that "substantial" is one of my new favorite words. This year's college resolution uses the term to limit out plans which are too tiny (hence "insubstantial") to be debatable. For context, the current resolution reads:

Resolved: The United States Federal Government should establish a domestic climate policy, including at least substantially increasing restrictions on private sector emissions of greenhouse gases in the United States.

The presence of "substantially" makes it viable for teams to read T-substantial against affirmatives designed to be so small that there's little negative offense. We'd read evidence in the context of climate change about what constitutes a "substantial restriction" on greenhouse gases, and argue that the plan is the opposite.

I wish that the LD topic gave LDers a similar avenue for beating small affs. So, if I wrote this Nov/Dec LD topic, it would have been:

Resolved: The United States ought to [substantially] limit qualified immunity for police officers. [Brackets are my own]

But unfortunately, I don't write your topics (what a shame!). So, you're left with a resolution that asks the affirmative merely to limit qualified immunity, with no qualifier indicating how much of a limit is needed.

If the affirmative simply defended the resolution as a general principle, the "how much" question is avoided entirely. The debate is simply a matter of whether, on principle, police officers should be entitled to qualified immunity. However, a lot of teams will pursue affirmative cases which defend a very specific plan. They might argue for limiting qualified immunity in a particular instance, or a set of instances. They might also argue for a particular doctrinal change in how qualified immunity is awarded (which might "limit" qualified immunity by demanding stricter criteria for when it's granted).

This kind of specification is perfectly reasonable, but what happens when your opponents realize they can get away with defending the tiniest possible limit? In that situation, your generics (the crime DA, most counterplans and NCs, etc.) probably don't apply. The best you're left with is the politics DA and moral skepticism (which is an interesting strategy, but not that effective).

So what do you do? You clearly can't read T-substantial, but that's no reason to lose hope. I recommend crafting three potential T arguments, both of which are effective alternatives—

(1) T-for, establishing that the plan isn't truly a limit on qualified immunity for police officers (yeah, I know that sounds weird, but read further)

(2) T-limit, establishing that the plan isn't truly a limit on qualified immunity

And (3) T-United States, against affirmatives that specify a particular branch of the federal government, or fiat all 50 states acting in unison

In cases where the action of the plan is that insignificant, you should read all of these violations in unison. You'll probably have the same story regardless.

"T-For" defines "for" as "suiting the purposes or needs of" (

Your argument here is that the affirmative does not limit qualified immunity in a case where it would inhibit the purposes or needs of police officers. This is meant to answer small affirmatives which argue that police departments can super easily adapt to their minute change in the law. That's how they'll say "no link" to every NC and DA.

There are two reasons to prefer (and these should be the only two you bother with): limits and ground.

Limits—The affirmative explodes the topic—they can limit qualified immunity in any instance where it belongs to cops, even if the limit doesn't meaningfully affect the efficacy of their job.

Ground—The key question of the resolution is whether police officers have the right to infringe on constitutional rights in the name of fighting crime. If the plan doesn't make it harder for cops to find potential criminals, then the neg has no good DAs

"T-Limit" defines limit in a legal context as "to fix or assign definitely or specifically." (

Your argument here is that the affirmative does not constitute a definite curtailment of cops' right to invoke qualified immunity in civil cases. If the affirmative specifies a particular type of police activity, but does not assign a definite condition on when/how qualified immunity can be granted, then they aren't T.

Again, the same two reasons:

Limits—The affirmative explodes the topic—they allow for lots of plans about countless interactions between cops and civilians without any definite or specific change in how qualified immunity is awarded

Ground—Absent a definite or specific change affecting QI, they can "no link" every DA by claiming that the plan's ramifications aren't 100% certain

"T-United States"

The Legal Information Institute says that "United States refers to the Federal Government of the United States…" ("24 CFR 15.2 - What definitions apply to this part?")

This interpretation certainly enables you to beat affirmatives that defend 50 state action, or that all municipalities act in unison. To beat Supreme Court affs, you need to read an additional definition of the United States federal government as all three branches. This means that the affirmative is not topical simply because they defended action by only one of those branches.

Limits—The affirmative explodes the topic—they justify tiny affs that affect one police department in one neighborhood—negs can't predict utopian forms of multi-agent fiat or affs that work through one branch and not the others

Ground—only federal action provides the most stable and predictable source of negative ground, like the politics DA

Concluding thoughts

1. In the 2NR, you need to talk about how ridiculous it is that the resolution lacks a qualifier like "substantial." This is why the judge needs to lean heavily negative on the limits debate—the resolution doesn't have any built-in limit on how significant the plan can be, which gives the aff way too much leeway in choosing their plan—this really makes it hard to be negative, so the judge needs to hold the line

2. When I did high school debate, I didn't like theory or T very much. Nowadays, I think T is pretty fire. That said, I do encourage you to only read these arguments in debates where the plan was either (a) so small you didn't predict it, or (b) designed to make winning your generic NC or DA impossible. In those situations, you have the ethos to be like "this kind of an affirmative is why topicality exists."

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