A Lawrence man arrested by Kansas City police while asking a provocative question about Israel at a public library event in 2016 has filed a lawsuit in federal court saying police and some of the event sponsors violated his civil rights.
In the lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Jeremy Rothe-Kushel, 39, says members of the Kansas City Police Department violated his right to free speech and wrongly arrested him during a May 9, 2016, talk by Middle East expert and diplomat Dennis Ross at the Kansas City Public Library's Plaza location.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith, five members of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, two Kansas City police detectives and a sergeant.
Also named as defendants: the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Kansas City and two of its employees, along with one employee of the Truman Library Institute. Both organizations were co-sponsors of the the May 9 event. A private security professional then employed by the Jewish Community Foundation was also named as a defendant.
On Thursday, Rothe-Kushel's attorney, Arthur Benson, wrote in an email to The Star that Rothe-Kushel has always been a peaceful critic of Israel.
"The suppression of lawful speech at the library is what happens when people and organizations let their irrational fears of criticism dictate their unconstitutional conduct," Benson wrote.
Sgt. Kari Thompson, a Police Department spokeswoman, said police will not comment on ongoing litigation.
Hawkins, reached by phone Thursday, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Attempts to reach other defendants in the case Thursday were not successful.
Rothe-Kushel's arrest was captured on video during the question-and-answer part of Ross' talk, which was billed as the first in a series of Truman and Israel Lecture events hosted by the two organizations.
As described in the lawsuit:
The library had become a partner in the event when it agreed to host the talk for no charge, which also made the talk a public event.
Ahead of the talk, the Jewish Community Foundation arranged to hire three off-duty police officers for security — an unusual step for a public library event.
As the date of the event approached, conflicting understandings emerged as to the role of security. While library officials said security should not remove any audience member for voicing an unpopular opinion, the other co-sponsors advised security to remove any protesters, according to the lawsuit.
On the night of the event, Blair Hawkins, who at the time was employed by the Jewish Community Foundation and was in charge of security, allegedly took Rothe-Kushel's photograph outside the library and instructed an off-duty officer to search him when he entered. It is unclear how Hawkins identified him, or if he was aware Rothe-Kushel often attends public events of political significance and records them.
After Ross gave his talk and opened the floor to questions, Rothe-Kushel made his way to one of the microphones and asked a long, complex question asserting that the governments of the United States and Israel have engaged in terrorism.
Rothe-Kushel identified himself as a Jewish American toward the end of the question and said "Both the countries that operate in our name have used terrorism way too long, including against its own citizens, to project power at home and abroad. When are we going to stand up and be ethical Jews and Americans?"
Joshua Stein, director of fund development for the Jewish Community Foundation, approached Rothe-Kushel during the question while Kim Rausch, director of development for the Truman Library Institute, signaled to a library staffer to cut off Rothe-Kushel's microphone.
The staffer did not do so then, having decided that Rothe-Kushel's behavior was civil.
Hawkins used his radio to advise the off-duty police officers that someone needed to be removed from the event.
After Ross and Rothe-Kushel exchanged a few more comments, Hawkins gripped Rothe-Kushel's arm and said "You're done."
As the incident continued, the library staffer did mute the microphone.
Rothe-Kushel pulled away and said "Do not touch me! Get your hands off me right now! You can ask me to leave. I will leave if asked."
Hawkins shifted his grip on Rothe-Kushel and Kansas City police detective Brent Parsons assisted Hawkins in "shoving" Rothe-Kushel away from the microphone, according to the lawsuit.
Parsons was assigned to the Kansas City Regional Terrorism Early Warning Interagency Analysis Center, according to the lawsuit, which is where he met Hawkins, who was a member of the center's advisory board.
Police arrested Rothe-Kushel on charges of trespassing and resisting arrest and also arrested library staffer Steve Woolfolk when he tried to intervene.
A year later in 2017, city prosecutors dropped the charges against Rothe-Kushel. Woolfolk went to trial and was found not guilty on charges of obstruction, interfering with an arrest, and assaulting a police officer.
Throughout the legal process, the library's executive director, R. Crosby Kemper III, sharply criticized city officials for persisting in the prosecution and violating the First Amendment.
Last year, the American Library Association gave the Kansas City library the Paul Howard Award for Courage. Woolfolk received the Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity.
On Thursday afternoon, Rothe-Kushel sent a written statement to The Star through his attorney. "Our personally held rights to peaceably assemble, speak freely, and record and publish our understandings are the foundation of our nation's traditions of self-governance and rule of law. We must vigorously practice, preserve, protect and defend them," the statement said.
The lawsuit filed Thursday brings eight counts against various defendants, including:
▪ A First Amendment violation claim against the Jewish Community Foundation and two employees, Lauren Hoopes and Joshua Stein; Blair Hawkins; Truman Library Institute employee Kim Rausch; and Kansas City police detective Brent Parsons.
▪ A wrongful arrest claim against Parsons, along with Sgt. Michael Satter and detective Michael Curley of the Kansas City Police Department.
▪ A conspiracy to violate civil rights claim against Hoopes, Stein, Hawkins, Parsons, Satter, Rausch and the Jewish Community Foundation.
▪ Two claims against Police Chief Rick Smith and the Board of Police Commissioners, alleging failure to adequately train and supervise officers.
▪ A battery claim against Hawkins and Parsons.
▪ A false arrest claim against Parsons, Curley, Hawkins, Hoopes and the Jewish Community Foundation.
▪ A conspiracy claim against Hoopes, Stein, Hawkins, Parsons, Satter, Rausch and the Jewish Community Foundation.