PEN/Benenson Courage Award

The PEN/Benenson Courage Award honors exceptional acts of courage in the exercise of freedom of expression. The honoree is chosen for their remarkable willingness to face adversity, risk, and personal sacrifice to defend this fundamental human right. Their actions have served as an inspiration, not only for their commitment to free expression but also for their profound impact on advancing human rights and democracy. This individual embodies the very essence of courage, showing that the power of words and ideas can transcend obstacles, ignite change, and inspire others to stand up for their beliefs.

Featured Honorees

Salman Rushdie, 2023

Salman Rushdie Headshot, Credit To Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

PEN America honored author Salman Rushdie, its former president, with the 2023 Courage Award. Rushdie accepted the PEN Centenary Courage Award in person, his first public appearance since he was severely wounded in a knife attack nine months prior. Rushdie, speaking to 700 guests at the American Museum of Natural History, said PEN America and its mission to protect free expression was never “more important” in a time of book bans and censorship and issued a call to action: “Terrorism must not terrorize us. Violence must not deter us. La lutte continue. La lutta continua. The struggle goes on.”

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Jack Petocz, 2022

PEN America honored Florida high school activist Jack Petocz with the 2022 PEN/Benenson Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the PEN America Literary Gala. Petocz was honored for organizing a statewide student walkout in March to protest HB 1557 (the Parental Rights in Education, or “Don’t Say Gay,” bill), which helped catalyze a groundswell of protest at schools and beyond against the legislation that prohibits discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation from kindergarten through third grade. Following the walkout, on March 3, Petocz was suspended from Flagler Palm Coast High School for handing out 200 LGBTQ+ pride flags. He was reinstated in school on March 7, though his school appears to continue to take disciplinary action against him, which effectively barred him from running for senior class president.

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Watch Jack’s acceptance speech >>

Jack Petocz

Marie Yovanovitch, 2020

Marie Yovanovitch speaking at podium

PEN America awarded Marie Yovanovitch with the 2020 PEN/Benenson Courage Award. A career foreign service officer and three-time ambassador, Yovanovitch served the U.S. with distinction throughout her tenure but was the target of a White House smear campaign that led to her abrupt dismissal as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in 2019. Though under intense pressure from a vindictive White House, Yovanovitch publicly testified to expose the corrupt machinations of Ukrainian officials and those at the highest levels of the U.S. government seeking her ouster.

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Watch Marie’s acceptance speech >>

Anita Hill, 2019

At the 2019 PEN America Literary Gala, PEN America presented professor, lawyer, and equal rights advocate Anita Hill with the PEN Courage Award. The youngest of 13 children from a farm in Oklahoma, Hill received her J.D. from Yale Law School in 1980. She began her career in private practice in Washington, D.C. There she also worked at the U. S. Education Department and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 1989, Hill became the first African American to be tenured at the University of Oklahoma, College of Law, where she taught contracts and commercial law. Currently, at Brandeis University, she teaches courses on gender, race, social policy, and legal history.

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Watch Anita’s acceptance speech >>

Anita Hill