Funnyman John Oliver is well known for his #nofilter persona, which makes him perfectly suited to host the annual gala for the literary and human rights organization PEN America. On Tuesday night, gussied-up literati came together in support of free speech and equality and sat for dinner beneath the life-size blue whale model at the American Museum of Natural History. Oliver took the stage to break the ice on an otherwise serious night: “This room, in a very real sense, is too fancy.” The laughter that ensued made it clear that the audience was glad to have him.

The crowd grew quiet as Oliver leaned into the serious part of his speech. “This is a difficult and spicy time to be alive,” he said, pointing out that, unfortunately, PEN’s work is more important than ever. “What brings us together in this room is what unites all of PEN America’s efforts—the mission of celebrating creative expression and defending the liberties that make it possible.”

In the center of each table was a modest floral arrangement, featuring tightly closed tulips that had yet to bloom—a coincidence, or a representation of censorship, depending on how you look at it. Between courses, PEN CEO Suzanne Nossel invited every writer in the room to stand and be applauded, knitting a web of connective tissue among the guests. It was a reminder of how lucky they were to be present and free and operate without censorship, intimidation, or the threat of imprisonment. Some of the evening’s honorees were not free to accept their awards: Saudi activists Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan are awaiting trial for their advocacy of women’s rights.

Alec Baldwin, wearing a more serious face than many of us are used to seeing, then took the stage to recognize Scholastic chairman and CEO Richard Robinson as this year’s Publisher Honoree. The winner of PEN’s Literary Service Award, Bob Woodward, was introduced by historian Robert Caro. “No matter how famous or legendary he has become, he has never stopped looking for facts,” Caro said of Woodward, who is known for his involvement in breaking the news of the Watergate scandal, in addition to a shelf’s worth of best-selling nonfiction.

Closing the night, after an auction at which it was announced that $2.5 million was raised in support of PEN, were remarks and an award that all guests were willing to stick around for. Lupita Nyong’o presented the PEN Courage Award to professor, lawyer, and chair of The Hollywood Commission to Eliminate Sexual Harassment and Advance Equality in the Workplace, Anita Hill. In her speech, Nyong’o encouraged and empowered guests with a call to action: “We must chip away at the repercussions of speaking out—the fear, the backlash—while continuing to fight for a world in which those who do so are met with respect and admiration.”

The prolific and inspiring Hill accepted her award, humbly turning attention to Nyong’o and marveling at her radiance. Hill summed up the evening’s weight with these words: “It’s taken generations to get the privilege that I have to write and to speak out, with the truth, and to speak truth to power,” she said. “It’s taken that long and I will never, never give it up.”