America’s Greatest Thinker for 2024 is… Michelle Mellon of Deming, New Mexico!
Audience Votes: Freedom of Speech IS Worth the Cost

On Saturday, June 8, 2024, a majority of the audience of nearly 200 voted to name Michelle Mellon America’s Greatest Thinker for 2024. Michelle successfully argued that freedom of speech is worth the cost, defeating David Lapakko in the final round of debate.

In the first two rounds of debate, Crystal Kelley of Eden Prairie, MN and Michelle Mellon of Deming, NM argued that freedom of speech IS worth the cost, while David Lapakko of Richfield, MN and Bill Sutherland of Eden Prairie, MN argued that freedom of speech is NOT worth the cost.


Think-Off Champion 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, she 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.

Michelle sets a personal goal each year and this year it was to expand her writing to essays. She searched “essay contests” online and found the Great American Think-Off! This is her first time entering the Think-Off, and her first time visiting Minnesota.


Round 1
YES, freedom of speech IS worth the cost.
Crystal Kelley vs. Michelle Mellon

In the first round, Mellon shared the stage with Crystal Kelley of Eden Prairie, MN, with each arguing their personal points of view on their common stance that freedom of speech is worth the cost.

Mellon led with the idea that freedom of speech is realized by “ensuring that everyone has a voice, however uncomfortable it may be.”  And, while we may question the “ideas, process, or motives” of others who are exercising their voice, our freedom of speech provides us with an opportunity to “refute, refine, or realize a vision or innovation in response to their words.”

Kelley supported her assertion that freedom of speech is worth the cost by providing commentary on our recent presidential election and unequivocally proclaiming that freedom of speech neither “…shields us from judgment by family, friends, or neighbors” nor does it protect us from “hearing speech we don’t like.”  Rather, freedom of speech “protects us from forced compliance and governmental retaliation” for speaking truth to formal power and authority.

Kelley argued that we are grappling with the high cost of this freedom because speech has the infinite potential to offend and we are collectively “valuing feelings over freedoms.” It is precisely in the absolute protection of this absolute freedom that allows “brave voices” to speak out and up, regardless of the personal consequences, to check power and curtail totalitarianism.

The Cub Scouts collected ballots and a majority of the audience voted for Mellon to advance to the final round.

Round 2
NO, freedom of speech is not worth the cost.
David Lapakko vs. Bill Sutherland

In the second round, Lapakko debated Bill Sutherland of Eden Prairie, MN, each presenting their unique arguments to support their shared position that freedom of speech is NOT worth the cost.

Lapakko recounted a time when our “stream of information was not so continuously polluted by a tsunami of misinformation and bizarre rumors” given light by an array of anonymized and universal platforms, reluctantly but unequivocally concluding that freedom of speech is “costing us too much.”

Sutherland based his argument on a “crucial psychological fact” — that people have a need and want “to be heard” and that “they matter”– turning the question on its head by declaring the cost of speech is more aptly applied to the “systemic absence of a right to be heard.”

Bill argued there are structural roadblocks in place that result in a lack of access to public officials and governing bodies. In practical effect, these barriers “short-circuit” an individual or group’s freedom to speak, or rather to be heard, which results in the high costs of speech that we are experiencing today. The “domestic tranquility” of our nation would be best served if public officials listened, “not just with the intent to reply, but with the intent to understand.”

The audience placed their votes, collected by local Cub Scouts, and Lapakko advanced to the final round.


Final Round
David Lapakko | NOT worth the cost vs. Michelle Mellon | WORTH the cost

In the final round, Mellon continued to support her assertion that freedom of speech is worth the cost. Open opportunities to exchange ideas come with infinite potential for “disruption,” in which personal and social evolution is achieved – moving us each, in our own way, closer to realizing the promise of living life to its “fullest potential.”

In his turn in the final round, Lapakko regaled the role that professionalism and accountability in journalism once played in the dissemination of “facts,” and now falls to individuals to check their own “freedom” of speech to correct “irresponsibly reckless behavior” in the age of digital media and infotainment.

In the end, the audience cast their votes and Mellon prevailed over Lapakko, making the better argument in favor of freedom of speech being worth the cost.

Attendees agreed it was a great debate, with many audience members finding it difficult to select a winner in all three rounds. In the end, Mellon defeated Lapakko, garnering more votes and thus earning the title of “America’s Greatest Thinker” for 2024, successfully arguing that freedom of speech is worth the cost.

Thanks to all who attended and supported civil discourse! We hope to see you again next year!


2025 will be the 32nd annual Think-Off Debate! Have suggestions or ideas for the event or next year’s question? Email or give us a call at 218-385-3339.

Interested in getting involved?  Here are the DATES TO KNOW!

  • January 1: Question Revealed
  • April 1: Essays Due
  • May 1: Finalists Announced
  • Second Saturday in June (June 14, 2025): The Great Debate

We got a lot of great feedback from attendees that we will use to make next year’s event even better.  Do you have more feedback to share? Click below!

Great American Think-Off Survey 2024 >


Did you miss the live debate? Watch the recording here: 2024 Think-Off Livestream


Learn more about the Think-Off here: About the Think-Off


See the history of the past 29 years of questions here: Think-Off History


Thanks again to our primary event sponsors, Mid-State Auto Auction and Minnesota Humanities Center!


We will publish written versions of the Finalist and Honorable Mention essays soon. Thanks for your interest and we hope to see you again next year!


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.