(New York, NY) — PEN America will honor Jack Petocz, the high school junior who fought against book bans and organized students across Florida to protest HB 1557 (the Parental Rights in Education, or “Don’t Say Gay,” bill) with the PEN/Benenson Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the 2022 PEN America Literary Gala. Devoted to exceptional acts of courage in the exercise of freedom of expression, the award this year is presented to the youth activist whose unflinching stance against censorship and silencing reflects his generation’s refusal of the regressive legislation burdening education throughout the country. The organization also today announces Emmy-winning CBS News Sunday Morning contributor, NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! panelist, journalist, and writer Faith Salie (Approval Junkie: My Heartfelt (and Occasionally Inappropriate) Quest to Please Just About Everyone, and Ultimately Myself) as the gala’s host. Held on May 23 at the American Museum of Natural History, beneath the blue whale in the majestic Hall of Ocean Life, the gala convenes writers, human rights advocates, humanitarians, thinkers, and other luminaries in support of PEN America’s cultural programming and crucial advocacy work for free expression worldwide.

Asia Kate Dillon, widely acclaimed for their performance on Billions as Taylor Mason—TV’s first nonbinary main character—will present the PEN/Benenson Courage Award to Petocz. The 2022 PEN America Literary Gala also recognizes Vladyslav Yesypenko, a Ukrainian journalist imprisoned in Russian-occupied Crimea, with the 2022 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, which his wife, Kateryna Yesypenko, will accept from two-time Academy Award-winning actor Michael Douglas. Presenters of awards conferred to Audible Founder and Executive Chairman Don Katz, the gala’s Business Visionary Honoree, and world-renowned writer Zadie Smith, recipient of this year’s PEN/Audible Literary Service Award, will be announced soon. The gala will begin with a VIP reception at 6pm, followed by a cocktail reception at 6:30pm, and dinner and awards at 7:30pm.

Jack Petocz has been fighting censorship in his school district over the past year, including leading students in protest against the removal of George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue. Petocz has written to Governor Ron DeSantis and Florida lawmakers, imploring those in positions of power to stop policing the education and identities of LGBTQ+ students. His voice is one of many inspiring the rising generation of activists to speak out.

In March 2022, Petocz organized a statewide student walkout, 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 in public schools. Following the walkout, Petocz was suspended on March 3 from Flagler Palm Coast High School for handing out 200 LGBTQ+ pride flags; he was reinstated in school on March 7.

PEN America has campaigned against Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law, an egregious infringement on free expression rights, and is a leading voice combating the surge of educational gag orders and book bans throughout the country. When Petocz was suspended from his high school, PEN America released a statement: “As the Supreme Court has ruled, students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of expression at the schoolhouse gates…This comes as Florida moves to ban discussions of LGBTQ+ identities in schools, and books about LGBTQ+ lives are being removed from Florida’s school library shelves. Petocz’s efforts to make his and other students’ voices heard should be lauded, not retaliated against.” Petocz is currently a participant in PEN America’s spring 2022 Free Expression Advocacy Institute, an innovative educational and training program designed to provide students with opportunities to learn about and take action on free expression issues in the United States and worldwide.

PEN America Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel said, “The state of Florida has declared war on free speech through a series of measures aimed squarely to suppress expression. Jack Petocz is leading his generation in fighting back against book bans and legislative efforts to police how individual identities can be discussed in schools. Jack understands that the struggles he and his peers are waging for a more equitable and inclusive society cannot succeed without robust free speech protections. He has been fearless in asserting his rights and those of others in the face of political forces that are determined to meet ideas they disagree with not with reasoned argument, but with bans and punishments. An ardent champion of LGBTQ rights and freedom of expression, Jack’s advocacy exemplifies how the causes of civil rights and freedom of speech are inextricably intertwined.”

Young people have a rich history of mobilizing multigenerational movements—and now, activating social media to do so all the more effectively—for justice and free expression. PEN America honored Darnella Frazier, who documented on video the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, with the award in 2020. In 2018, it was conferred to youth activists against gun violence Cameron Kasky and Samantha Fuentes—students who survived the shootings at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School—and Zion Kelly, the twin sibling of a victim of gun violence. Other recipients include former Santa Cruz County Health Services Director Mimi Khin Hall and Santa Cruz County Health Officer Gail Newel—recognized in 2021 as emblematic of public health officials around the country battling onslaughts of disinformation and personal attacks—and professor, lawyer, and equal rights advocate Anita Hill.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Press Contacts

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