Kansas City Public Library embroiled in free-speech case

Employee faces charge following public program

October 3, 2016

Kansas City Public Library Executive Director R. Crosby Kemper (left) and Director of Programming and Marketing Steven Woolfolk. Screenshot from Kansas City Star interview.
Kansas City Public Library Executive Director R. Crosby Kemper (left) and Director of Programming and Marketing Steven Woolfolk. Screenshot from Kansas City Star interview.

On May 9, after a question-and-answer session following a public lecture by US diplomat Dennis Ross at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library (KCPL), city police arrested and detained an attendee and the library’s director of programming and marketing. The attendee, social activist Jeremy Rothe-Kushel of Lawrence, Kansas, was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest after he asked the speaker a question, and the librarian, Steven Woolfolk, was charged with interfering with the arrest.

KCPL Executive Director R. Crosby Kemper said in the October 1 Kansas City Star that the library had “thought the charges would be dropped once the library explained the situation to police and prosecutors.” In late September, the library decided to make the incident known to the media, because the city had pressed forward with the case. Kemper said that he was “outraged” at this “violation of the very first amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

On September 30, American Libraries talked to Woolfolk, who filled in some of the details of the incident. The talk, the first in a lecture series titled “Truman and Israel,” was cosponsored by the Jewish Community Foundation (JCF) of Greater Kansas City and the Truman Library Institute in addition to the library. Ross, who has been involved in US policy on the Middle East since the 1970s, spoke on the attitudes towards Israel of every presidential administration from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.

Woolfolk told AL that the JCF came up with the idea of providing security for the talk. “The library, on occasion and usually at the speaker’s request,” Woolfolk said, “agrees to providing extra security.” But in this case, the JCF arranged for private security guards as well as off-duty police officers to be present, in part because of sensitivity in the region over the April 2014 shootings by a lone gunman at a Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kansas, that left three people dead.

“We agreed to the additional security on two conditions,” Woolfolk said. “First, the guards were not to remove any audience member for asking an unpopular question. Second, if the library staff concluded that there was an imminent threat—such as a weapon drawn or people rushing the stage—the security team would consult with us before taking any action. They agreed to those conditions.” However, as it turned out, “those conditions were not accurately conveyed,” Woolfolk said.

At the end of Ross’s talk, Rothe-Kushel went to the audience microphone to ask Ross a question, in the process stating that the US and Israel have engaged in state-sponsored terrorism. Ross answered, but Rothe-Kushel “was clearly not happy with his response to that assertion,” Woolfolk said. Although Ross had turned to take a question from another attendee, Rothe-Kushel attempted to make another statement, referencing an “individual who is known to be a 9/11 conspiracy theorist.”

At that point, Woolfolk told AL, there was a “scattering of boos from the audience, but no calls to shut up.” A private security guard then walked up to Rothe-Kushel and grabbed him, Woolfolk said, and “that’s when I tried to intercede and deescalate the tension between the guard” and the questioner. (The Kansas City Star posted a cellphone video taken by a friend of Rothe-Kushel that shows part of the incident.)

“After the question session, I thought the incident was over,” Woolfolk told AL. “The security guards had asked Rothe-Kushel to leave, he agreed, and I showed him how to go out the back way to the lobby. I needed to talk to my supervisor, Deputy Director of Public Affairs Carrie Coogan.” As he left to find her, Woolfolk said he was grabbed by one of the off-duty policemen. He said in the September 28 Dissent NewsWire that the officer did not tell him he was under arrest. A second policeman arrived and kneed him in the leg, causing some damage to his medial collateral ligament, and handcuffed him. Woolfolk said that several people came by and asked why he was being held, and each time the officers said either “We don’t know” or “We can’t say.” In fact, “the word ‘arrest’ was never used until I was in the paddy wagon,” Woolfolk said. Rothe-Kushel was arrested at about the same time.

Coogan followed them to the police station and was able to get them “both released on a signature bond,” Woolfolk told AL. The library has protested that the arrests were a violation of the First Amendment, but the court has continued to hold periodic status hearings with the defendants. “The last appearance was in mid-September,” Woolfolk said, “at which the judge agreed to depose three witnesses for the library. The next hearing is November 16.”

Woolfolk said that the off-duty police officers were not at the event to “enforce city ordinances, but were taking direction solely from the private security team.” Kemper told the Kansas City Star that the security guards and police officers clearly violated the agreement they had with the library. “We’re going to be living in a different kind of country,” he said, if people can be arrested for asking questions at a library.

Woolfolk summed up the library’s position best by quoting novelist and LGBT activist Sarah Schulman, who had given a talk at the library on August 24: “She said that people need to put themselves in positions where they hear and see things that make them uncomfortable. That’s how we develop as human beings.”

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