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FreedomFest moving from Las Vegas to Rapid City for 2021 conference
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FreedomFest moving from Las Vegas to Rapid City for 2021 conference

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The world's largest conference featuring prominent speakers in the pro-freedom and liberty movement has moved to Rapid City after COVID-19 restrictions prevented the conference from happening in Las Vegas.

FreedomFest 2021 and the companion Anthem Film Festival will be held in Rapid City on July 21-24 with the conference at Rushmore Plaza Civic Center and the film festival at Elks Theatre. Organizers expect to register more than 2,000 attendees for the events that week.

FreedomFest Executive Director Valerie Durham said the conference had been held in Las Vegas since 2007. In 2020, FreedomFest was canceled because the state of Nevada placed numerous restrictions on large gatherings and mandated wearing of masks in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"When that happened and we were forced to shut down the conference, we began looking at options as to where we could go — where our choice to hold a conference, even as we are giving the people the option to be physically distanced, where masks are not mandated and required by government," Durham said. "We were really impressed with Gov. (Kristi) Noem's approach and her words. Several colleagues of ours emailed us and told us to really look at South Dakota."

Durham said FreedomFest had thoughts of moving out of Las Vegas previously, but South Dakota wasn't even in the thought process. She said it wasn't until 2020 with Noem's stance on not mandating pandemic restrictions or requiring masks that really made the difference.

"We explored options of going to Sioux Falls and also reached out to Visit Rapid City, and we were so impressed with what Rapid City had to offer us," she said. "We've been incredibly impressed with the attitude and enthusiasm that we've experienced so far."

FreedomFest is an annual festival where people meet to celebrate “great books, great ideas, and great thinkers” in an open-minded environment, Durham said. It is independent, non-partisan, and not affiliated with any organization or think tank.

"I think that's really important. FreedomFest is a place where we don't really do political labels because we feel that's where thinking ends," she said. "As soon as I hear someone is a conservative, Democrat, communist or whatever these labels are that we slap on people, instantly the thinking stops. We automatically say, 'Oh, I know what that person thinks and I know I don't like them,' or, 'I know what that person thinks and I know I like them.'

"We get rid of that and we really try to address the issues of freedom and liberty and bring as much honest perspective, information and evidence as we can so that people listening can have their own thoughts about it and engage in conversation about it while they are at FreedomFest," she said.

Dozens of speakers are expected at the convention with more to come. Already, speakers include Noem, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, Whole Foods founder John Mackey, health expert and television personality Dr. Drew Pinsky, political commentator Dave Rubin and comedian JP Spears.

FreedomFest conference coordinator Hayley Aragona said 200 to 250 experts will be speaking at the conference's general sessions and multiple break-out meetings throughout the four days.

"You're going to see amazing people on Bitcoin, on drug legalization, decriminalizing sex workers," she said. "You have these very interesting, controversial topics that will be discussed. We have this guy coming on sea-steading, which is this idea of creating small islands out in the ocean where people can live in a free society.

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"We don't focus just on political aspects, we try to be an intellectual conference."

The organizers have also planned excursions to Deadwood for gambling, visits to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, a tour of Badlands National Park and a ride on the 1880 Train between Keystone and Hill City.

FreedomFest founder Mark Skousen said the relocation to Rapid City has been a boon for his organization.

"When we saw the ads and news stories about South Dakota being open for business, we knew this would be a good move," he said. "I've been to South Dakota before, specifically around the Black Hills, and the ability for our attendees to get out and explore outside of the confines of Las Vegas has been a great benefit. We have already set a record for early-bird ticket sales. People are excited about this move."

As an added feature to the FreedomFest conference, Jo Ann Skousen will take the Anthem Film Festival to the Elks Theatre in downtown Rapid City. Skousen said the 2021 event will mark the 10th anniversary of the film festival that celebrates libertarian ideals.

"We will screen anywhere between 20-25 films that may not always gain the attention of Hollywood, but some go on to do bigger things," Skousen said. "Our goal is to provide a venue for filmmakers who care about individuality and libertarian ideals."

Each film screening will begin with an introduction by featured directors and some cast members. The screening will be of a variety of movies from short films to feature productions. After the viewing, Skousen said a panel discussion will be held with various question-and-answer sessions.

One of the films featured in Rapid City will be "Reagan," starring Dennis Quaid. Skousen said the film is still in production, but will have a clip available for viewers and that she is expecting Quaid to be in attendance.

"I can't imagine a better actor to portray Ronald Reagan than Dennis Quaid," she said. "And can you just see Dennis Quaid posing by the statue of Ronald Reagan just down the street from the Elks Theatre? It will be an amazing experience."

Another film that will be screened is "Rush to Judgment," a documentary about the January 2019 encounter at the Lincoln Memorial between Nicholas Sandmann and other students at Covington High School and a group of protestors during the anti-abortion rally.

"Rush to Judgment," directed by Steve Oldfield, examines the results of the encounter following viral videos and threats on social media. Skousen said the documentary was supposed to have its world premiere at the 2020 Anthem Film Festival in Las Vegas, but because of the cancellation due to COVID-19 restrictions the film will be shown this year in Rapid City.

Tickets to FreedomFest are available online at freedomfest.com, and tickets to the Anthem Film Festival are available at anthemfilmfestival.com.

Organizers say discounted and special arrangement tickets to residents of South Dakota are available.

Contact Nathan Thompson at nathan.thompson@rapidcityjournal.com.

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