31st Annual Great American Think-Off
Congratulations to all four finalists!
Read the winning essays below

The four finalists for the 2024 Great American Think-Off are (in alphabetical order): Crystal Kelley of Eden Prairie, MN; David Lapakko of Richfield, MN; Michelle Mellon of Deming, NM; and Bill Sutherland of Eden Prairie, MN. 

At the 31st annual Think-Off debate held in New York Mills, MN, on Saturday, June 8, 2024, Michelle Mellon successfully argued that freedom of speech is worth the cost, winning the gold medal and the title of America’s Greatest Thinker for 2024. Michelle defeated David Lapakko in final round of debate, and David went home with the silver medal. Crystal Kelley (YES) and Bill Sutherland (NO) both earned bronze medals. Each of the four finalists also won a $500 prize and an all-expense-paid weekend in New York Mills.

Read the 2024 Think-Off Finalists’ award-winning essays below!


Finalist Michelle Mellon, 2024 Think-Off Debate. Photo Credit: Overflow Creative.

Michelle Mellon
Deming, New Mexico
Gold Medal Winner | America’s Greatest Thinker

YES, freedom of speech IS worth the cost.

I have fought to be heard for much of my life.

People who know me may find that hard to believe, but it took a while to find my voice and feel comfortable sharing what I thought.


In school, I was admonished for talking after I’d finished my work. In my professional life (like so many other women), I have been talked over and had my assertions “man-splained. And as a Black American I have been told (with undisguised surprise) that I communicate “rather well.”

I had no desire to continue to be front-line fodder for other people’s obliviousness. I honed my freedom of “speech” as a writer, ensuring the things I want to express are a step removed, to be consumed on the other person’s time with the blessed benefit of distance.

But at least I had the opportunity to explore. To study and test the thoughts and words of others, to find what resonated, what didn’t, and how that shaped me and my own willful expression.

And at what cost?

Often, when people refer to the “cost” of freedom of speech they mean lives. In war, in protest, in acts of revenge or ungoverned and unrepentant wrath, in the incitement to action, whether through measured discourse or a more instinctive response.

Naturally, that begs consideration of whether/how we moderate speech, like criminalizing yelling fire in a crowded theatre. (Which, by the way, is not a real thing, although there are true restrictions on speech that do exist in this country.)

As proud as we are of being “one nation…indivisible,” we are equally proud of being a nation of individuals. So, I think we need to ask this question in a different way:

What’s the cost to us without freedom of speech?

Even with access to all the resources in the world, some people would still choose to be ignorant. But for those who don’t – who value knowledge, discourse, and growth – hearing the ideas of others is critical.

For years I worked as a ghostwriter supporting thought leadership for women/BIPOC/AAPI/ LGBTQIA+ executives because I believed their voices should be elevated. Technically, they had the freedom to speak. In reality, many people in this world are governed by fear of the unfamiliar and a zero-sum attitude that instills a sense of persecution.

Essentially, it’s the idea that “the others” are coming for them, so they consume the resources and co-opt owned narratives so these “others” must focus on surviving rather than speaking up or speaking out.

To a large degree, humans are creatures of habit and its resulting comfort. So, while historically marginalized peoples are more often the victims of it, a fear of discomfort doesn’t manifest solely at their expense.

To me, freedom of speech is ensuring that everyone has a voice, however uncomfortable it may be to do so. I might agree wholeheartedly with what they say. I may question their ideas, process, or motives. Or I might find everything they say repugnant and offensive.


But it may then spark in me my own freedom to refute, refine, or realize a vision or innovation in response to their words.


We are all better served by remembering that the fact we can ask and openly debate this question comes from a place of privilege—realizing how privilege enables choice, and choice is the essence of freedom.

My father served as a U.S. Army officer for 21 years, fighting to defend a country founded on freedoms that his own ancestors were denied. I am only five generations removed from enslaved people who were tortured for trying to think freely, let alone read, write, or speak unfettered.

In my mind, that’s a cost that’s rarely considered in discussions about the freedoms we enjoy. Why would we choose to manacle ourselves by giving up our voices?

Curtailing freedom of speech assumes you stand on indisputable moral and intellectual higher ground. Yet an absolute, universal, “right” path doesn’t exist.

In the end, we’re responsible for our thoughts, our words, and our actions. We are also responsible for teaching those who come behind us the power of free speech, the responsibility that comes with it, and the history of its impact.

Disruption, for better or worse, has always been the key to our evolution. So, is freedom of speech, with its potential for untold disruption, worth the cost?




Because I believe people living without freedom of speech are people who are not able to live to their fullest potential.


Finalist David Lapakko, 2024 Think-Off Debate. Photo Credit: Overflow Creative.

David Lapakko
Richfield, Minnesota
Silver Medal Winner

NO, freedom of speech is NOT worth the cost.

If you asked me 20 years ago whether freedom of speech is worth the cost, I would’ve responded with an enthusiastic “yes.” There was a time when people could be trusted, when bizarre rumors didn’t circulate globally in an instant, when people did actual research, and when our stream of “information” was not so continuously polluted. Back then, if you were seeking media attention, you’d have to work through a gatekeeper–someone like an editor or a reporter–and convince them that you had something worthwhile to say. If you wanted the attention of the press, you had to do something that was truly newsworthy, with claims that could be verified. And because journalism has always been based on an obsession with factual accuracy, you knew there was some merit to what you read or heard. Rather than being the “enemies of the people,” journalists have always been trained to get the facts right; if they don’t, they can literally be fired on the spot.

However, it’s now 2024, and the landscape has changed, perhaps forever. In many ways, the traditional principles of freedom of speech have become a relic of the past.

Before electronic and social media, people couldn’t instantly post something reaching millions of others just because they wanted to. Prior to social media, freedom of speech at least had some guardrails, but today there is only more convenient speech. Now all you need are a couple of thumbs tapping out 280 characters, with no need to support anything in the message with actual evidence. That’s a prescription for disaster. In our society, “freedom” is almost a religious term, an unqualified virtue. But freedom without responsibility is its own form of tyranny. Currently we are victimized by people who only care about the freedom to lie and mislead.

We are mired in an election campaign which shows freedom at its worst. In this case, it’s freedom to lie, freedom to hurl mud, and freedom to intentionally confuse. As but one example: it is no longer partisan politics to say the 2020 election didn’t involve any significant degree of fraud. It simply did not; even many Republicans know this. Out of 61 court cases which involved allegations of election fraud, 60 of them were rejected for lack of any evidence, in many cases by judges appointed by the aggrieved party. But “freedom” does not stop anyone from continuing to make such claims. What’s the cost of freedom in this case? Erosion of public trust in all of our political institutions. Election workers harassed and targeted with death threats. And, an overwhelming cynicism that “the system” just isn’t working right, whether it be government, media, or the courts. “Freedom” has an ugly side, and we are seeing it literally every day in our public discourse. And all this may get even worse: now freedom of speech can be exercised by people who don’t even exist; with artificial intelligence, messages without a human author are now a reality, which is the ultimate in lack of personal accountability.

Freedom not worth the cost? Consider automobiles: I want people to have the freedom to purchase and drive cars, but that doesn’t mean such freedom is always worth the cost. There are financial considerations, environmental issues, and the fact that over 40,000 people are killed each year by cars. On balance, does that make cars worth the cost? I’m not sure, but I do know that freedom without responsibility is horribly wrong. If you’re going to drive a car, it better have seat belts and airbags. It better have clean exhaust. It better be driven by someone who’s at least 16 and has a license. But in the world of “free speech,” we have few such safeguards in place. Charges of libel are very hard to sustain. People can say all kinds of vile, disgusting things anonymously with no fear of repercussions. If people communicated in the manner promoted by the Great American Think-Off, I would have no problem saying that freedom of speech is worth the cost. But that is not how things are these days. I regret to say we are paying a very heavy price for our freedom.

I am a big advocate for the First Amendment. I don’t want to see it abolished. But until something beyond “freedom” guides our irresponsibly reckless behavior, I must conclude–quite reluctantly–that it’s costing us too much. Currently, freedom of speech is doing more harm than good.


Finalist Crystal Kelley, 2024 Think-Off Debate. Photo Credit: Overflow Creative.

Crystal Kelley
Eden Prairie, Minnesota
Bronze Medal Winner

YES, freedom of speech IS worth the cost.

Before a presidential election, I wrote an essay criticizing one candidate and urging people to vote for another. I’d written countless essays and articles about politics. However, that essay cost me more dearly than anything I’d previously written.

My oldest friend—Godmother to my eldest child, maid of honor at my wedding—read my essay. We sustained a deep, loving friendship despite our growing political differences, made possible by a pact against engaging in ad hominem attacks. However, she was offended by what I wrote and lobbed personal insults meant to cut deep. Pact broken, its shards fossilized in social media amber.

That knock-out punch felled a decades-strong friendship. The next time I saw her was after she summoned me to her deathbed. She knew she’d broken something precious. That deathbed reconciliation couldn’t reclaim all we’d lost.

I lost someone I deeply loved in the last years of her life because my words offended her. Was my freedom of speech worth the cost?


Our right to free speech doesn’t shield us from judgment by family, friends, or neighbors. It doesn’t prevent a private company from firing us. It doesn’t protect us from hearing speech we don’t like.


It protects us from forced compliance with government-controlled censorship and governmental retaliation for speaking against authority.

American elections allow for frequent power shifts. Free speech rights guarantee our ability to criticize government without threat of retaliation no matter who holds power. This is important to every American because during one administration, the powerful may like what you say. However, when power changes (it always does) you may find your speech offends the new occupants of the most powerful seats in the world.

When that happens, you must be free to debate about candidates or policies to facilitate change in subsequent elections. If your speech were chilled through threats or censorship, it could become impossible to freely participate in our electoral process, ending free and fair elections. Ending America.

We’re risking this horrible outcome because our culture increasingly urges that voices be silenced in often well-intentioned efforts to prevent people from becoming offended. I believe nothing is universally offensive. What offends me may not offend you. It’s subjective; therefore, there should be no relativism as regards free speech. It must be absolute.

Multiple polls show waning support for free speech, especially if speech is “offensive.” Polls differ and numbers shift, but trends are clear. This dangerous chipping away at our free speech rights is tolerated—even expected—not just on college campuses, but in many areas of American life.

The first time I said, “You can’t say that,” with government edict in mind was to my late husband during the height of the Covid era. It hurt my heart to say it. It cuts deeper when I hear one grandchild say those same words to another. That phrase is becoming accepted by citizens of the only country that guarantees there’s nothing we cannot say.

Why? Because we’re valuing feelings over freedoms. America’s future requires that we not follow such roads, which lead to where all other countries reside.

Many Americans believe all western nations share our free speech rights; however, America is the only country to guarantee it. The European Federation of Journalists currently lists 109 jailed journalists. Our free speech rights are a reason so many seek asylum here where they may speak without fear.

I wrote my essay knowing I couldn’t be punished for it by my government. When it upset my friend, I was never protected from punishment by her.

Our nation is grappling with this cost of free speech. We’re very concerned about upsetting people. Instead of supporting people’s silencing those whose speech offends them, we should encourage them to speak right back. And we must speak, even if it hurts.

Our government holds awesome power. It’s the nature of those who have power to keep it. Without the citizenry’s right to speak freely, power will naturally become totalitarian. Americans conducted a revolution to remove the gilded boot of a king from their collective necks. They knew enshrining freedom of speech would help protect the new republic from future totalitarianism.

I lost a beloved friend, yet exercising free speech has cost many so much more: their lives, livelihoods, lives of spouses, parents, children.

Brave voices continue speaking out no matter the cost. These costs of freedom aren’t paid in vain. Without them, America, beacon of hope to the voiceless, could cease to exist.


That is too high a cost.


Finalist Bill Sutherland, 2024 Think-Off Debate. Photo Credit: Overflow Creative.

Bill Sutherland
Eden Prairie, Minnesota
Bronze Medal Winner

NO, freedom of speech is NOT worth the cost.

No, it is not.

Freedom of speech is of immeasurable value, but it is not worth nearly the cost that our society has assigned to it. The simple reason is that this cost is misapplied. It very often does not actually attach to freedom of speech, but rather to the systemic absence of freedom to be heard.

The ubiquitous Facebook and its ilk attest to a crucial psychological fact: People want to be heard. Or said another way, they want to feel they matter.

Many episodes, or even historical eras, of civil unrest in our nation have been transparently about not being heard. Others raised different issues in their headlines, but oftentimes the undergirding reality was about not being heard, especially about refusal to be heard by a governing body.

A half-century ago, Walt Kelly’s comic strip possum Pogo famously observed, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Overused, certainly, but Pogo here reminds us that these governing bodies consist of members of our own society. Unhappily, their habitual rejection of a freedom to be heard appears virtually everywhere.

One turbulent era was in full flower in the latter half of the 1960s. I was a U of M student at the time, much of it living on campus. Often a key driver of any given campus protest was some flavor of freedom to be heard. I was mostly a silent spectator at such events, deciding that the measured voice of an engineer would not be heard above the shrieking rabble. I thusly censored myself, not a point of personal pride then or now.

Some years later, I served on the planning commission in my town. At our monthly meetings we would receive presentations, mostly from homeowners or land developers. No matter from whom, the default mindset of the commission members was something like, “I’ve made up my mind, don’t confuse me with the facts.” Meanwhile, the city attorney would regularly advise us that by law we couldn’t vote this way or that, amounting to yet another impingement on a freedom to be heard. I grew increasingly disgusted that many of the presenters, or this commissioner for that matter, were not being heard, and left after one three-year term.

Another local example: In the 1990s my family and I moved to a naturally beautiful suburban metro location, featuring a heavily wooded expanse extending broadly from our backyard to the backyards of the houses opposite, comprising some 60,000 square feet. Every day our common woodland supported a variety of birds and animals, serving essentially as our own neighborhood nature preserve. The following year the city decided to construct a major paved road right down the middle, thereby ruining the character and serenity of the entire area. I spoke, with props, at a city council meeting. Not only was I not heard, but a city official even took the opportunity to insult and degrade me at length in the televised public meeting.

Such incidents illustrate a freedom to speak that is short-circuited by the absence of a freedom to be heard.

Despite this dismal generalization there are exceptions. I served for eight years, including two years as chair, on the state board that licenses architects, engineers, and other design professionals. The core purpose of this board is protection of the public from incompetent or unscrupulous professional practice, and it upheld a literal and refreshing interpretation of the word “hearing.” Proposals presented that were consistent with the board’s stated objective were actively considered, and those deemed meritorious were introduced into the rule-making process, or even espoused in legislative committee meetings for potential enactment into state law.

The United States has enshrined freedom of speech in the very first amendment to the Constitution, and I feel certain that the founders knew full well that for all its value, some predictable cost would accrue. But nothing like the grossly excessive cost we see on the streets or the internet today. The fix is simple, but clearly not easy: First, assign this cost to where it rightfully belongs, not to freedom of speech, but to absence of freedom to be heard. Second, commit not to be our own enemy, but instead to recast our society, and therefore also our government, into one that genuinely adopts a core tenet of the late Stephen Covey of “7 Habits” fame:

To listen, not just with the intent to reply, but with the intent to understand.

The “domestic tranquility” expressly cherished in our Constitution depends on it.


Want to know more about how the 2024 debate went? Click below!

2024 Great American Think-Off Results >

The Think-Off Committee also awarded 6 Honorable Mention recognitions to the following essayists:

  • Timothy Rogers – Cedar Rapids, Iowa – YES
  • Manuel Monterrosa – Long Branch, New Jersey – YES
  • Tom Whelihan – Alexandria, Minnesota – YES
  • Emmanuel Maduabuchi – Enugu, Nigeria – NO
  • Paul E Terry – Waconia, Minnesota – NO
  • Rick Brundage – Minneapolis, Minnesota – NO

The Honorable Mention essays will be published soon; STAY TUNED!

Questions or want more information? Give us a call at 218-385-3339.

This activity is made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through an operating support grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.