Four finalists selected for annual live debate in NYM

Photo by Chad Koenen
With moderator Katie Lange looking on, Doug McClain makes his case that protecting the environment is more important than protecting the economy during the 30th annual Great American Think-Off last year.

The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center announces 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, on Saturday, June 8.

Across the country, colleges and universities are grappling with the subject of our 2024 Think-Off question, “Is freedom of speech worth the cost?” Always a bastion of civil discourse, the Think-Off asked everyday Americans to weigh in with essays of 750 words or less and has invited the top two on each side to battle it out on the debate stage on June 8, in New York Mills.

As student protests become more heated, Jewish students are being sent home for their safety, and graduation ceremonies are being canceled. College presidents are facing hostile crowds on both sides, and everywhere everyone is trying to do the delicate dance of protecting free speech while also protecting people. Is it worth all the trouble? We are pleased to announce the four essayists who will answer that question via a live debate this June.

The four finalists are (in alphabetical order): Crystal Kelley of Eden Prairie, Minn.; David Lapakko of Richfield, Minn.; Michelle Mellon of Deming, N.M.; and Bill Sutherland of Eden Prairie, Minn. 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?” Kelley and Mellon will assert that yes, it is worth the cost, while Lapakko and Sutherland will argue that no, it is not.

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

The live debate is the following day, Saturday, June 8 at 7 p.m. 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.

• Finalist Crystal Kelley is a full-time caregiver for her disabled adult son. Kelley 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 also a classically trained pianist and a widow who is incredibly proud of her children and grandchildren, who are her true life’s work.

• Finalist 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. He has been an adjunct professor for many years as well, and in the last two years, he has also become a devoted barbershop quartet singer.

• Finalist 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. Mellon earned a B.A. in English from The College of William & Mary and an M.A. in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University. 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. 

• Finalist 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, Sutherland 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. Sutherland earned his Professional Engineer license for Minnesota in 1978. Bill enjoys his (almost) retirement by spending time with his family, and outdoors at their retreat in Grand Marais, Minn.

The public is invited to attend the live debate in New York Mills, on Saturday, June 8 at 7 p.m., 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, to eventually choose the debate winner, who will earn the title of America’s Greatest Thinker for 2024.

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 NYMills Public School Auditorium. 

A reception honoring the finalists is held at the Cultural Center immediately following the debate and is open to all. Debate tickets are available online at

For more information, call the Cultural Center at (218) 385-3339 or visit

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: