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Libraries often find themselves on the frontlines against government overreach, whether it is opposing local politicians who want to ban books or protecting the privacy and confidentiality of their patrons from police intrusion.
The Kansas City, Mo., Public Library system has dealt with these issues over the years. But now the library finds itself at the center of a new controversy — aggressive policing — a trend increasingly common in the streets but rarely seen inside the walls of libraries.
In May, Kansas City police arrested an audience member attending a public event at a local branch of the city’s library system. The police also arrested an employee of the Kansas City Library who intervened on behalf of the audience member.
The library kept quiet about the May 9 incident for several months, hoping the city would drop the charges against the two people. When the city told the library it was moving forward with the charges, the library began to publicize the incident and how the local police suppressed free speech.
“They’ve kind of doubled-down on this and they’re moving ahead with the prosecution,” R. Crosby Kemper III, the Kansas City Library executive director, said in a video interview posted Sept. 30 on the Kansas City Star website. “At this stage, I’m actually outraged. This is a big violation of the very First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. We would expect our police department, which we have worked with very closely over the years, to want to talk to us about this and deal with this in a community way. Instead, they’ve chosen to defend the indefensible conduct of their off-duty police officer.”
The audience member, Jeremy Rothe-Kushel, was standing still and speaking into a microphone when a security guard grabbed him. Steve Woolfolk, director of public programming for the library system, intervened without touching the security guard and asked for Rothe-Kushel to be allowed to leave the library peacefully.
Woolfolk reportedly suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in his knee when a police officer providing security at the event hit him in the leg. Rothe-Kushel was arrested and charged with trespassing and resisting arrest. Woolfolk was arrested and charged with interfering with an arrest.
The arrests occurred at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Library, where diplomat and Middle East specialist Dennis Ross was giving the inaugural Truman and Israel Lecture, established by the Truman Library Institute and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Kansas City. The Jewish Community Foundation hired the private security and off-duty police officers for the event.
Prior to the event, the library said it 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 of physical danger. “We were absolutely clear on this issue from the very beginning,” Kansas City Library spokeswoman Carrie Coogan said. “We don’t know why that was not communicated to the security teams that were there that day.”
The American Library Association (ALA) issued a statement on Oct. 3 expressing its support for the Kansas City Library and commended Woolfolk for defending Rothe-Kushel’s “right to question and debate matters of public concern.”
“The ALA commends the Kansas City Public Library for its commitment to fostering public deliberation and the exchange of a wide spectrum of ideas by offering meeting rooms and other spaces for lectures, educational programs, and organizational meetings,” ALA President Julie Todaro said in a statement. “Libraries are public institutions that serve as catalysts for public discussions that help solve community challenges. Such efforts are not possible when patrons are not allowed to engage in open debate in a public forum, but rather are arrested for asking difficult questions.”
The ALA said it will “extend resources” to the staff of the Kansas City Library in their legal battle over the incident.
The Jewish Community Foundation has tightened security at its facilities and events over the past two years. In April 2014, Frazier Glenn Miller Jr., a notorious neo-Nazi and Klansman, killed two people at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in nearby Overland Park, Kan. Frazier also killed one person at Village Shalom, a Jewish retirement community located in Overland Park. Miller was convicted of the killings and sentenced to death.
In a statement on the May 9 incident, the Jewish Community Foundation noted that it included a question-and-answer opportunity after Ross’s speech “in the spirt of encouraging dialogue.” During the Q&A, “a series of actions by a questioner and a library employee began that resulted in their arrests by local law enforcement,” the organization said.
Jewish Community Foundation spokeswoman Brooke Hardy said the organization has been trying to encourage a resolution to the incident “that would be acceptable to all parties” and that it will “continue to cooperate in this matter.”
Rothe-Kushel told the Mondoweiss news site that the private security guard who grabbed him at the event was Blair Hawkins, who serves as security director for the Jewish Community Foundation.
The Kansas City Library has no plans to stop partnering with the Jewish Community Foundation, Coogan said. The library also will continue to allow private security guards at future library events. “We just will make absolutely, positively sure that they understand the expectations ahead of time,” she said.