The National Forensic League is a non-partisan, not for profit educational honor society established to encourage and motivate high school students to participate in and become proficient in the forensic arts: debate, public speaking, and interpretation. Bruno E. Jacob, a professor at Ripon College, first envisioned the League after receiving a letter which inquired whether an honor society existed for high school debaters. Noting that no such society existed, Jacob drafted and circulated a proposal for what would become the nation’s oldest and largest high school debate and speech honor society. The League welcomed its first member school on March 28, 1925.
The League grew in both membership and organization during the next few years. In 1926, the League chartered one hundred high schools. In 1927, the League began producing The Bulletin, a professional newsletter that served as the forerunner to today’s Rostrum magazine. Chapter manuals, jeweled insignia pins, and other organizational items emerged during this time. One of the most significant changes came in 1930, when Bruno E. Jacob proposed a national speech tournament for League members. The following year, the first National Tournament was held at Ripon College with 49 schools from 17 states competing. Miami, Oklahoma won the first national championship in high school debate.
In spite of economic turmoil, the League continued to grow during the depression years. National Tournament winners appeared on an NBC network program and CBS aired the championship debate. In 1938, the first Student Congress was held in conjunction with the National Tournament, and Poetry Reading was formalized as a consolation event. To encourage and channel its growth, the Executive Council voted to increase requirements for membership and degrees while abolishing most of its student fees. This practice was hoped to incentivize excellence while increasing access to League opportunities.
With the onset of World War II, the League suspended its National Tournament. However, upon request from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the National Student Congress continued to meet. Recognizing the need for community service during this time in the nation’s history, the Executive Council approved an emergency war schedule of service points to be awarded for speeches made to school and community audiences. As the war neared its end, the concept of service points was written into the League’s constitution to promote service among its members. The National Tournament resumed in 1947.
In the mid-20th century, the League experienced another growth spurt. Bruno E. Jacob resigned his teaching position at Ripon College in order to devote his full attention to the League. He traveled approximately 20,000 miles a year, mostly by car, visiting with members of the League and offering his support. At the same time, the League was incorporated and engaged its first Assistant Secretary to increase its services to members. These administrative changes were rewarded with increased membership, as the 100,000th League membership was recorded in December 1957.
The 1960s and 70s were a time of transition for the the League. After decades of service, Bruno E. Jacob retired as Executive Secretary, and President Karl E. Mundt soon followed. League leadership was restructured as the League expanded to include 44 districts, and the Executive Council was increased by two members. New awards were also introduced, including recognition for leading schools and the National Forensic League Hall of Fame, which recognized outstanding forensic coaches and educators. Humorous Interpretation and Lincoln-Douglas Debate were added as main events at Nationals, expanding the number of opportunities available to students. In 1975, the League celebrated its golden anniversary, which included a move into its own building.
As society began to embrace technology, the League worked to incorporate this new field into its mission and services. In the 1980s, the League began videotaping final rounds as a means of preserving the history of the contest. As the Internet gained popularity in the 1990s, the League developed and refined its website to extend opportunities for students previously marginalized by geographic or fiscal constraints. In this vein, the League turned its attention toward engaging previously underserved communities. During the 1991-92 school year, Phillips Petroleum made a major gift to the League to promote speech education in rural and urban communities. A few years later, the National Junior Forensic League (NJFL) was established to serve junior high and middle schools. The Barbara Jordan Youth Debates, made possible by the Kaiser Family Foundation, were held for urban debaters. As a result of these and other outreach efforts, the 900,000th member was recorded in the mid-90s.
At the millennium, the League continues to grow and improve. New award opportunities, including the Academic All American award and the National Student of the Year award, have been established to recognize excellence in scholarship and character. The League's Code of Honor was adopted in 2007 to promote the holistic development of youth. Its tenets include integrity, humility, respect, leadership, and service.
Since its founding, the League has enrolled more than 1.4 million members in all 50 states, U.S. territories, and several foreign countries. Currently more than 120,000 high school students and 5000 coach educators are active members. Prominent League alumni include Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, John Roberts, and Samuel Alito; Senators Richard Lugar, Russ Feingold, and Bill Frist; media visionaries Ted Turner and Oprah Winfrey; Academy Award winners Mark Boal, Renee Zellweger, Patricia Neal, and Don Ameche; Emmy award winners Kelsey Grammar and Shelley Long; news anchor Jane Pauley; C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb; Amazon founder Jeff Bezos; and Golden Globe winner Chris Colfer.
The National Forensic League National Tournament continues to be held annually, featuring competition in a number of events including Policy Debate, Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Public Forum Debate, Congressional Debate, United States Extemporaneous Speaking, International Extemporaneous Speaking, Original Oratory, Dramatic Interpretation, Humorous Interpretation, Duo Interpretation, Commentary, Expository, Prose Reading, Poetry Reading, Supplemental Debate, Impromptu Speaking, and Storytelling. Top students take home more than $200,000 in college scholarships at each National Tournament. Through the tournament, its services, its outreach, and its support, the League aspires to continue its decades-long tradition of excellence and pursue its mission of giving youth a voice.