On Tuesday night the cocktail conversation at the Beverly Hills Hotel included some discussions on the Writers Guild of America’s strike that started on Sunday, but once the 17th annual PEN USA Awards ceremony started attention shifted to the association’s long commitment to protecting writers around the world, and First Amendment rights took center stage.

Stage and screenwriter Larry Gelbart (most recently honored by PEN for his 1998 HBO teleplay for Weapons of Mass Distraction), joked, “scratch a striking writer and you’ll find a willing master of ceremonies,” before he set off to manage the night’s program.

In one highlight of the evening, “the never less than majestic” Helen Mirren, (in Gelbart’s words) presented the Freedom to Write Award to Somali journalist Sahal Abdulle. The British Oscar-winning actress read Abdulle’s moving account of a fatal attack on the car carrying Abdulle and fellow journalist Ali Iman Sharmarke on their way back from attending the funeral of yet another Somali journalist killed for telling the truth. “Death is often random in Mogadishu,” she read. Abdulle’s statement went on to question who would speak for the people of Somalia if all the journalists left the country.

In accepting the award Abdulle said his country needs the First Amendment more than anything and he thanked PEN for giving him this award, which makes his friend Sharmarke’s death “not be in vain.”

Gore Vidal presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to Clancy Sigal, novelist, screenwriter, reporter and National Book Award nominee for his memoir Going Away. Sigal spoke about growing up in Chicago where his mother was a garment worker and labor activist and how that training helped him stand strong when McCarthyism came to Hollywood and the young writer found himself blacklisted. “Fighting seemed so much more fun than pacificity,” he said.

Books honored at the 2007 PEN USA awards were: in fiction, The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon); in research nonfiction, The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright (Knopf); creative nonfiction, The Horizontal World by Debra Marquart (Counterpoint); poetry, Exceptions & Melancholies by Ralph Angel (Sarabande); and children’s, Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata (Atheneum/S&S).