The 2022 PEN America Literary Gala featured remarks from Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and other notable figures who emphasized the importance of protecting free speech.
“I see freedom of speech as a hope of democracy,” Booker told Variety on Monday night at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. “And now more than ever, we need people that are willing to speak with purpose. Not for popularity or politics, but to speak to the truth of the matter.”
Over the last 100 years, the nonprofit advocacy group has worked to defend the liberties of writers and literary professionals to freely express themselves. PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said that she believes free speech is under imminent attack.
“It’s a time of rising authoritarianism, both around the world and our country,” Nossel told Variety. “We’re spotlighting the breadth of threats to freedom of expression.”
She continued, “It really calls upon all of us to stand up and defend free speech if we want to hold on to it because it’s being threatened from all sides.”
“Billions” star Asia Kate Dillon presented the PEN/Benenson Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Jack Petocz, a high school activist who was suspended earlier this year for passing out Pride flags during a protest of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“What Jack and his fellow students are doing is so important: mobilizing against bans and bigotry, [and] contesting adults who attempt to impose narrow thinking on wide communities,” Dillon said. “That is courage. And that is free expression in action.”
Petocz said it’s interesting to see how the Republican Party defends the right to free speech but doesn’t apply the same standards to marginalized communities.
“It’s quite evident of their own prejudices when they tout these principles and then they don’t apply them to people like me,” Petocz told Variety. “We just have to continue to fight for the free speech that this country was founded on.”
English novelist Zadie Smith was also recognized as this year’s Literary Service Honoree, while Audible founder Don Katz was honored as the Business Visionary Honoree. The gala concluded with Michael Douglas recognizing foreign journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko as the recipient of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.
Yesypenko was arrested by Russian officers in Mar. 2021 on suspicion of collecting information for Ukrainian intelligence. After being brutally tortured, he was forced to falsely confess on live Russian television to espionage and making firearms.
“He is a courageous truth-teller, a patriot, a beloved father and husband,” Douglas said. “In his work as a journalist, he has sacrificed his own freedom to bring to us the stories and the truths of the people of Ukraine.”
Douglas continued, “Like so many of us, I’ve been awed by the bravery of the people of Ukraine today and they are a powerful resistance for the campaign by Putin and the Russian regime to wipe the country of its culture and its history right off the map.”
Since Yesypenko is currently serving a six-year sentence in a Russian labor colony, the award was accepted by his wife, Kateryna Yesypenko. She spoke about her recent trip to Washington, where she urged government officials to end the prosecution of independent journalists who wish to write and speak freely.
“I know my husband shares this hope, hope that the democratic world will unite against Vladimir Putin’s aggression,” Yesypenko said. “That is what keeps him and the hundreds of other Ukrainian political prisoners Putin holds captive going.”