The Kansas City Public Library and a librarian who was arrested last year during a public event are receiving two national awards for defense of free speech.
But the same week the awards were announced, city prosecutors filed two new charges against the librarian.
The awards and the charges stem from a May 9 incident in which the librarian, Steve Woolfolk, intervened to try to stop the arrest of library patron Jeremy Rothe-Kushel during the question-and-answer part of a talk by Middle East expert and diplomat Dennis Ross at the Plaza library.
Kansas City library officials have protested the charges, saying off-duty police and private security wrongly seized Rothe-Kushel, of Lawrence, while he was asking questions. Police and prosecutors have stood by the arrests, saying Rothe-Kushel was disrupting the event and that they removed him.
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The American Library Association has awarded the Kansas City Library the Paul Howard Award for Courage, given biannually for “unusual courage for the benefit of library programs or services.”
Woolfolk, the library’s director of public programming, will receive the Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity, named for the pen name of Daniel Handler, author of the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books.
“I have long relied on librarians to stand up for our essential rights of freedom and expression,” Handler said in a statement about the awards. “Mr. Woolfolk’s commitment and gumption are inspiring to behold, and it is an honor to stand up for him in the form of an ovation.”
The awards will be presented during the ALA’s annual conference in Chicago in June. Woolfolk and R. Crosby Kemper III, the library’s executive director, will attend the conference with two board members. They will also collect a third award for community awareness.
Kansas City library officials announced the awards Wednesday. Two days earlier, city prosecutors filed the two new charges against Woolfolk: obstruction and assault. The assault charge accuses Woolfolk of repeatedly pushing a detective.
Woolfolk had originally been charged last year only with interfering with Rothe-Kushel’s arrest. Rothe-Kushel is charged with trespassing and resisting arrest. Both men are scheduled to go to trial July 21.
Kemper said the combination of the awards and the new charges made for “an absurd situation.”
“We’re honored by the recognition of Steve and the library,” Kemper said. “We’re thrilled by that, and we think we’re doing a really good job as a library. And one of the things we’re doing really well is events.”
As for the continued prosecution of the case, Kemper said, “It doesn’t pass any kind of smell test. … It’s absurd and it’s Dickensian and it’s outrageous.”
The addition of new charges nearly a year after the incident especially offended Kemper, he said. “They’re playing games with the law. It’s disgraceful.”
Kansas City prosecutor Linda Miller, who took charge of the office earlier this month, said the new charges were added after prosecutors recently reviewed the case.
Police have said Rothe-Kushel disrupted the event, which was hosted by the library together with the Truman Library Institute and the Jewish Community Foundation, by persisting in asking questions after the speaker attempted to move on.
Among other things, his question concerned whether Jewish Americans such as himself should be more critical of actions by the U.S. and Israel that Rothe-Kushel characterized as “state-sponsored terrorism.”
When a private security guard and an off-duty police officer - both hired by the Jewish Community Foundation for the event — grabbed Rothe-Kushel, Woolfolk tried to intervene and officers arrested him as well.
Library officials have said they don’t normally have security at their events, but they allowed the Jewish Community Foundation to bring hired security, including off-duty officers. The library had told the co-sponsors that no one should be removed from the event without their permission.
In his report, arresting officer Brent Parsons of the Kansas City Police Department describes the event as private. But it was a public event.
Police emails show that Parsons made a note in the arrest report indicating an “anti-Jewish bias” in the alleged offense, and that police officials said that note should be removed. Parsons disagreed. Kansas City police have declined to say what decision was ultimately reached.
Rothe-Kushel, who is Jewish, said he doesn’t think he did anything wrong, and that he is thankful for Woolfolk’s support.
“Although defending myself and what most of us see as fundamental rights has been an unexpected, long and tiring process, I have been buoyed to be in the midst of this alongside an honorable librarian like Steve,” he said.