Today’s Daily Debate shout out goes to Katrina Burlet, a debate coach at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois and director of the Justice Debate League. Last week a federal judge cleared the way for her to pursue a lawsuit accusing Illinois prison officials of violating the 1st Amendment when they shut down the Prison Debate Team after they hosted a public debate on reforming the parole system.
Katrina Burlet, is a debate coach at Wheaton College and Hinsdale Central High School. She started volunteering as a debate teacher at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill in 2017. In March of 2018 her debaters debated before an audience that included 18 members of the Illinois General Assembly on the topic of the merits of different parole systems that Illinois might adopt. The debate received positive reviews. But soon after her debate program was shut down by prison officials.
According to the Chicago Law Bulletin, her lawsuit alleged that prison officials disapproved of her debate team’s views on reinstating parole in Illinois, demanded the debate team’s communications with state legislators halt, threatened to transfer members of the prison debate team, and canceled the debates and her class. (https://www.chicagolawbulletin.com/canceled-prison-debate-teacher-can-proceed-with-free-speech-suit-20200410)
The Federal Judge ruled that Burlet has a plausible claim that prison officials were “motivated by legitimate viewpoint discrimination” and the issue of “the First Amendment rights of outsiders to access prisons and communicate with prisoners.” Limits on speech “based solely on the message conveyed are impermissible.”
So huge shout out to Ms. Burlet and all the educators and students in prison debate initiatives. Despite some of the best efforts of those to shut down such programs, these programs are sorely needed. Indeed, it was Malcolm X who was on a prison debate team before he became a civil rights leader who expressed the importance of debate on the mind:
“But I will tell you that, right there in the prison, debating, speaking to a crowd, was as exhilarating to me as the discovery of knowledge through reading had been. Standing up there, the aces looking up at me, the things in my head coming out of my mouth, while my brain searched for the next best thing to follow what I was saying, and if I could sway them to my side by handling right, then I had won the debate – once my feet got wet, I was gone on debating. Whichever side of the selected subject was assigned to me, I’d track down and study everything I could find on it. I’d put myself in my opponent’s place and decide how I’d try to win if I had the other side; and then I’d figure a way to knock down those points” (Malcom X, 184).
You can learn more and support Ms. Burlet by visiting the Justice Debate League website, and volunteering or donating: https://www.justicedebateleague.org/help-us-out.
by Erik Fogel
Great Debaters Online
“Canceled prison debate teacher can proceed with free-speech suit,” Chicago Law Bulletin, Patricia Manson, April 10th, 2020, https://www.chicagolawbulletin.com/canceled-prison-debate-teacher-can-proceed-with-free-speech-suit-20200410
Open Letter to Governor Rauner from the Stateville Debate Team
Justice Debate League
Katrina Burlet v. John Baldwin, et al., No. 18 C 5875