31st Annual Great American Think-Off
Philosophy Essay/Debate Contest
Live Debate June 8, 2024

New York Mills, MN—May 1, 2024—The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center is pleased to announce the four finalists from the essay contest portion of the 31st annual Great American Think-Off. These four finalists will participate in a live debate in New York Mills, MN on Saturday, June 8, 2024.

The four finalists 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. These four essayists each win $500 and a weekend trip to New York Mills in June to participate in the live philosophical debate.

During the debate, the finalists will defend their essays, arguing their side of the 2024 Think-Off question:

“Is freedom of speech worth the cost?” 

The 2024 finalists bring a variety of learned and lived experiences to the stage in New York Mills to aid in the defense of their positions.

The 2024 Think-Off finalists are (in alphabetical order):

Crystal Kelley is a full-time caregiver for her disabled adult son. Crystal has been a writer and editor for more decades than she’d like to admit; first as a full-time corporate gig, then as a freelancer. Her essays have appeared in numerous publications on subjects ranging from copyright law to head lice. She’s a classically trained pianist who recently began a practice regimen after a long break from the keys so it won’t sound like she’s playing with her fists.

Crystal can be found haunting thrift shops looking for vintage jewelry, a hobby that sprung from being a treasure hunter’s daughter. She hopes to make selling and sharing knowledge of vintage jewelry her next career. It’s her passion because its details are so vast she learns something new every day. She’s a widow who is incredibly proud of her children and grandchildren, who are her true life’s work.

Crystal Kelley of Eden Prairie, Minnesota says YES, freedom of speech is worth the cost.

David Lapakko is finishing his 38th and final year as an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. Since 1986, he has taught courses in persuasion, argumentation, research methods, communication theory, intercultural communication, and organizational communication. In the past, he has been an adjunct instructor at Hamline University, the University of St. Thomas, St. Olaf College, and the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Argumentation: Critical Thinking in Action (Kendall Hunt), now in its 5th edition.

Blessed to have been married to his wife Helen for 41 years, he has two children and four grandchildren. He likes to write, edit, take long walks, go on road trips, and listen to music in all its forms–especially through a network of house concerts in the Twin Cities that attracts amazing performers. In the last two years, he has also become a devoted barbershop quartet singer at an annual event that features ten barbershop songs which everyone must learn and perform at multiple venues.

David Lapakko of Richfield, Minnesota argues that NO  freedom of speech is not worth the cost.

Michelle Mellon has over 30 years of experience as a professional storyteller, including more than 25 years working in marketing as a copywriter, content writer, and ghostwriter. She currently works as a brand communications and marketing consultant from her home in southwestern New Mexico. Michelle earned a B.A. in English from The College of William & Mary and an M.A. in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University. She serves on the Board of Trustees for the Minority Freedom Community Fund and is a lifetime member of Alpha Phi Omega co-educational service fraternity.

In her spare time, Michelle is an author of award-winning speculative short fiction, including two short story collections and dozens of story publications for anthologies, magazines, and a podcast. 

“Those who tell the stories rule the world.”
~ Hopi proverb

Michelle Mellon of Deming, New Mexico says YES, freedom of speech is worth the cost.

Bill Sutherland has been in the consulting engineering business for some 40 years, including the founding of MinnTech Engineering Consulting Engineers in 1984. A native Minneapolitan, Bill graduated from the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology, now known as the College of Science and Engineering, and holds a degree in Electrical Engineering. Bill earned his Professional Engineer license for Minnesota in 1978.

Bill and his wife Pam have two grown daughters and make their home in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. He is enjoying his (almost) retirement by spending time with his family, and outdoors at their retreat in Grand Marais, Minnesota.

Bill Sutherland of Eden Prairie, Minnesota says NO  freedom of speech is not worth the cost.

Interestingly, two of the four finalists have been here before and another one has been recognized as an honorable mention. David Lapakko was a finalist in 2013, 2015, and 2019, and was the winner of the debate in 2015, successfully arguing that technology frees us (as opposed to traps us). Bill Sutherland was a finalist in 2021. Crystal Kelley was an Honorable Mention essayist in 2018. This is Michelle Mellon’s first time submitting an essay, and will be her first time visiting Minnesota!

The live debate among these four finalists is on Saturday, June 8, 2024, at 7 p.m. The public is invited to attend!

Debate is held at the New York Mills Public School Auditorium. Don’t miss your chance to witness these four armchair philosophers engage in lively civil discourse. All audience members are invited to cast their vote for who they think makes the best argument. The winner will earn the title of America’s Greatest Thinker for 2024.

Before the Great Debate, the finalists will be available to meet the public at the Great American Think-Off Kick-Off on Friday, June 7 at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center during a Philosophers & Artists Reception from 6-8 p.m. This reception is free to attend and open to all. 

In addition to honoring the Think-Off finalists, the Philosophers & Artists Reception on Friday, June 7 from 6-8 p.m. will also feature regional visual artists whose work will be on display in the Cultural Center Gallery’s Annual Adult Regional Show. The theme of this year’s show is “Unfettered.”  Refreshments and a cash bar will be available. All are welcome!

Tickets to attend the live debate are $12 in advance or $15 at the door; students are just $5. The debate is held in the NYM Public School Auditorium on Saturday, June 8, beginning at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m.  A celebratory reception honoring all the finalists immediately follows the debate at the Cultural Center and is free to attend and open to all. Refreshments and cash bar available.

For more information, call the Cultural Center at (218) 385-3339; to buy advance tickets online, click below:

Get Tickets to Attend the June 8th Think-Off Debate >


About the Great American Think-Off: 

Now in its 31st year, The Great American Think-Off is an exhibition of civil disagreement between powerful ideas being explored by everyday people. Designed to bring philosophy down from the ivory towers of academia and make it accessible for all, the contest has received national acclaim including coverage by C-SPAN, the New York Times, and The Today Show.

The Cultural Center, located in the rural farm and manufacturing town of New York Mills, Minnesota, sponsors this annual philosophy contest and encourages people of all ages and backgrounds to participate. The Cultural Center is a rural hub for creativity, community vitality, and lifelong learning in the arts. Since our incorporation in 1990, we have been passionate about connecting people to artists and rich cultural experiences in rural Minnesota, celebrating the local and being a window to the world.

To get a better sense of the Think-Off, find details, historical information, and a list of the past 30 years of questions and winners on the event website:

Think-Off News

Think-Off History

Think-Off Media

Buy tickets to the 2024 Think-Off debate on June 10, 2023 >

Questions? Call the Cultural Center at (218) 385-3339.