Kansas City Public Library officials said Friday they are outraged that the city continues to pursue the prosecution of an employee and a patron arrested at a public event earlier this year.
The arrests occurred after a provocative question was asked at the question-and-answer period of a May 9 talk by diplomat Dennis Ross. For months, library officials protested that the arrests and charges were a violation of the First Amendment.
The library did not go public with its opposition until recently, with city prosecutors appearing determined to pursue charges.
Police have stood by the arrests, saying that off-duty officers hired by an event sponsor acted properly in helping private security stop an audience member from asking follow-up questions after a short exchange with Ross.
Never miss a local story.
The audience member, Jeremy Rothe-Kushel of Lawrence, was standing still and speaking into a microphone when a private guard and off-duty police officers removed him.
Steve Woolfolk, director of public programming for the library, protested the police action and tried to intervene before the entire group left the room and both men were arrested.
A friend of Rothe-Kushel recorded parts of the incident on video, while Woolfolk’s arrest was captured by library surveillance video that is not available for public release but was viewed by a Star reporter.
Rothe-Kushel is charged in city court with trespassing and resisting arrest. Woolfolk is charged with interfering with an arrest.
On Friday, R. Crosby Kemper III, the executive director of the city’s library system, said the private security guards were not acting on behalf of the library and had no right to remove a patron for asking a question. Kemper said he could not understand why the police believed they should arrest the patron or the library employee.
Kemper said he thought the charges would be dropped once the library explained the situation to police and prosecutors.
“At this stage, I’m actually outraged,” Kemper said. “This is a big violation of the very first amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”
The arrests occurred at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City library, where Ross gave the inaugural Truman and Israel Lecture, established by the Truman Library Institute and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Kansas City.
The event, hosted by the library, was open to the public and appeared to proceed without incident until Ross, an author and diplomat who was involved in the Middle East peace process and served as a special assistant to President Barack Obama, after previously working for other presidents, took a question from Rothe-Kushel.
A video of the incident records Rothe-Kushel’s brief exchange with Ross, who then appears ready to move on to another audience member.
When Rothe-Kushel tries to ask another question, a private security guard grasps his arm, followed by an off-duty police officer, both employed by the Jewish Community Foundation.
After Woolfolk tried to intervene, officers arrested both men. Woolfolk said he suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in his knee when a police officer kneed him in the leg. Kemper said the library is paying workers’ compensation for the injury.
On Friday, Woolfolk said he wasn’t trying to resist arrest but was confused about what was happening and didn’t know how to comply. He said the first officer who grabbed him did so without saying anything to him. And he didn’t think he did anything wrong in trying to intervene in Rothe-Kushel’s arrest.
“I was trying to be careful, with the hope of de-escalating. This isn’t how we handle things at the library,” he said. “For anybody, a police officer or someone else, to take it upon themselves to silence a person they disagree with, it’s not appropriate.”
Rothe-Kushel said he had considered making a report against police with the city’s Office of Community Complaints, but didn’t do so.
“Every police officer who was on duty that evening was very communicative and respectful,” Rothe-Kushel said. But he thinks it was wrong that the guard and off-duty officer put their hands on him. He said he would have left if he had been asked to and given the chance to do so.
“But I was not OK with being physically assaulted,” Rothe-Kushel said. “The library tried to defend my person and my God-given rights of the First Amendment. We believe the charges should be dropped.”
Capt. Stacey Graves, a Kansas City police spokeswoman, said the off-duty officers acted appropriately and with the full authority of the department, though they were on that night employed by the Jewish Community Foundation.
“If security wants the person out, and the officer saw a person being disruptive at the event, then we would remove the person,” Graves said. “We’re there to keep the peace.”
“Anytime someone interferes with an arrest, they should be arrested. That’s a city ordinance,” Graves said.
All concerned, including police and library officials, agreed that the specifics of Rothe-Kushel’s question were irrelevant. Among other things, his question concerned whether Jewish Americans such as himself should be concerned about actions by the U.S. and Israel that amount to “state-sponsored terrorism.”
“When are we going to stand up and be ethical Jews and Americans?” Rothe-Kushel asked.
As seen in the video, Rothe-Kushel was still standing at the microphone and speaking quietly when a guard grabbed him and he shouted, “Get your hands off of me right now!”
Woolfolk said he has hosted dozens of library events where more provocative questions have been asked, and no one was arrested. The only time anyone has been asked to leave was when an audience member fell asleep and started snoring.
The library ordinarily does not have security or off-duty police at such events, but on occasion allows it if a speaker, such as an author on abortion issues, may be in danger.
In this case, the library agreed to have the Jewish Community Foundation bring security, in part out of sensitivity to the 2014 shootings that left three dead at Jewish sites in Overland Park.
But library officials said they had specified that no one was to be removed for asking uncomfortable questions and not without permission of library staff, unless there was an imminent threat.
Kemper, the library director, said the security guards and police officers violated that agreement, along with the library’s core reason for existence as a place to exchange ideas.
“We’re going to be living in a different kind of country” Kemper said, if people can be arrested for asking questions at a library. “If this kind of behavior is unacceptable to the police, then I guess we’re going to have to shut the library down.”