Kansas City librarian Steve Woolfolk has received a national award and been put on trial for the same act: trying to stop police from arresting a library patron.
After a trial Friday in Kansas City Municipal Court, Woolfolk was found not guilty on charges of obstruction, interfering with an arrest, and assaulting a police officer.
The charges against Woolfolk, the Kansas City Public Library’s director of programming and marketing, stemmed from an incident in May 2016 when Woolfolk tried 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.
Rothe-Kushel of Lawrence had been in the middle of asking Ross a series of challenging questions when he was seized by private guards and off-duty police working security at the public event.
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Library officials protested the arrests, with executive director R. Crosby Kemper III publicly saying that he was outraged and that the city was violating the First Amendment.
Kansas City police stood by the arrests, and city prosecutors added the assault charge against Woolfolk nearly a year later.
After a trial that ran late into the afternoon Friday, Kansas City Municipal Judge Joseph H. Locascio issued a quick ruling acquitting Woolfolk on all three counts, remarking: “It was a public event.”
Assistant City Attorney Mike Heffernon, who prosecuted the case at trial, referred questions to City Prosecutor Linda Miller. She could not be reached Friday night.
Woolfolk said he was relieved the ordeal was over. He had been saving a bottle of Macallan scotch for about a year, since the case was scheduled for trial, and hoped to open it Friday night.
“I’m elated. I could not be happier,” Woolfolk said. “Free speech is a fundamental tenet of the library system.”
During the months the case worked through the system, the American Library Association threw in its support and gave the Kansas City library the Paul Howard Award for Courage. Woolfolk received the Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity.
If Woolfolk had been convicted on any of the charges, he could have faced up to 6 months in jail. The assault charge could have brought a fine of up to $1,000.
Rothe-Kushel had been scheduled for trial the same day on charges of trespassing and resisting arrest, but prosecutors dropped the charges a few months before the case went to court.
Miller earlier had said she could not comment on why the charges against Rothe-Kushel were dropped.
The Plaza library hosted the lecture. Woolfolk, as director of public programming, was in charge. The library typically does not have security at such events. In this case, the Jewish Community Foundation proposed to hire private and off-duty police security for Ross. The library agreed — on condition, library officials said, that security not remove anyone from audience without the library’s permission.
The event proceeded without incident until Ross took a question from Rothe-Kushel, who asked a long, convoluted question that among other things concerned whether Jewish Americans such as himself should oppose actions by the U.S. and Israel that amount to “state-sponsored terrorism.” The exchange was recorded on video.
“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!”
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, the library director, said the library paid workers’ compensation for the injury.
Kemper had been vocal in defending both Woolfolk and Rothe-Kushel after the arrests. He criticized police and prosecutors for insisting on pressing the case, calling it “prosecutorial misconduct.”
“The good news is, justice was done,” Kemper said after the trial. “It was always ridiculous.
“A security guy went overboard. Even that is understandable,” he said. “What wasn’t understandable is that the police and the prosecutors went to the mat on this.”