Two library systems in the Kansas City, MO, area have found themselves at the center of challenges to free speech. An event last spring at the Kansas City Public Library (KCPL) resulted in the arrests of a both patron who spoke at a public lecture and the librarian who defended him. And in August, at the nearby Grandview branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL), two security guards resigned in protest of a book display originally titled “Black Lives Matter,” although the library changed the title. Both incidents, while different in tenor and outcome, highlight the role of libraries as defenders of free speech and safe spaces for dissent.
On May 9, KCPL hosted diplomat Dennis Ross to speak at the inaugural Truman and Israel Lecture, a joint venture of KCPL, the Truman Library Institute, and the Jewish Community Foundation (JCF) of Greater Kansas City. Ross’s engagement consisted of both private and public appearances—first as a private event for 200 JCF members, and continuing in the library’s large auditorium as a lecture for the general public.
For the evening of Ross’s lecture Blair Hawkins, JCF’s head of security and a former police officer, engaged several off-duty police officers to supplement KCPL’s regular security staff. (Two years earlier a lone gunman had opened fire at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in nearby Overland Park, and security has remained a heightened priority for the JCF.) KCPL had partnered with the Truman Library Institute on many events without a problem, noted KCPL director of public programming Steve Woolfolk. But he understood JCF’s concerns, and agreed to allow the additional security on a couple of conditions, which were agreed to verbally.
The first condition, said Woolfolk, was that nobody would be stopped from asking an unpopular or difficult question. The second was that unless there was an imminent threat, JCF’s security would consult with KCPL before removing anybody from the building. “In other words, if there was a weapon involved or somebody charged the stage or something like that, they could feel free to act,” he told LJ. “But if someone is being a disruption, or maybe they have a sign that you don’t agree with, just make sure you consult with us first.”
DISSENT AND ARRESTS
When Ross opened up the floor to questions, local writer and activist Jeremy Rothe-Kushel was the first to speak. He suggested that the United States and Israel had engaged in activities tantamount to terrorism “all the way up into the 21st century, including September 11 and that whole mess,” and called for “ethical Jews and Americans” to take responsibility for their actions.
Ross disagreed, quoting the politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everybody is entitled to their own opinions. They’re just not entitled to their own facts.” As the audience chuckled, Rothe-Kushel began to ask a follow-up question, which Woolfolk did not consider out of line. “We encourage people to engage in a dialog as long as we don’t decide that they’ve been hogging the microphone too much,” he explained. In such a situation, “we’ll just step in and tell somebody, ‘there are a lot of other people waiting to ask a question. Could you finish up…and let’s move on to the next person.’ That always works.”
Before Woolfolk could make that call, however, JCF’s security officer grasped Rothe-Kushel by the shoulders and moved him away from the microphone.
In a cell phone video taken at the event, Rothe-Kushel can be heard saying loudly, “Do not touch me. Get your hands off me right now…. Ask me to leave [and] I will leave.” Woolfolk, who had stationed himself near the podium in case security staff needed to consult with him about cutting a commenter off, stepped between them. The off-duty police officer hired by JCF moved in as well.
Woolfolk cited their earlier agreement that non-threatening patrons would not be ejected, and pointed out that Rothe-Kushel had offered to leave under his own power. “After a few more seconds of this, eventually they…removed their hands from the patron and said, ‘OK, will you leave?’” Woolfolk recalled, “and he said yes. So at this point I felt as though the entire situation had been effectively de-escalated.” He led Rothe-Kushel out through the back of the auditorium, accompanied by the security guard and officer, to the building lobby area.
Woolfolk turned away to find his supervisor, KCPL deputy director of public affairs Carrie Coogan. As he did so, he told LJ, one of the off-duty police officers—who was not in uniform and had not identified himself—approached him from behind and pushed him into a pillar. “As I turned around to see who it was,” said Woolfolk, “he shoved me harder into the wall and another police officer [who was also working the security detail] joined the fray. They were saying something to the effect of, ‘stop resisting, stop resisting.’ And I just kept saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m resisting. Just tell me what it is you want me to do, because all I’m doing right now is trying not to fall on my face.’” Eventually they pushed him to the floor and handcuffed him; Woolfolk suffered a torn knee ligament in the process. When Coogan arrived, they told her that Woolfolk was resisting arrest, but wouldn’t elaborate on what he was being arrested for. Rothe-Kushel was arrested at the same time, and charged with trespassing and resisting arrest.
On the way to the police station, Coogan called KCPL executive director R. Crosby Kemper III, who met them there. Coogan and Kemper got Woolfolk and Rothe-Kushel released on signature bonds, allowing both to leave on their own authority.
Eventually Woolfolk was charged with interfering with an arrest—an arrest he had not known was taking place at the time. Given that KCPL is a public library, however, and that the arrests were made during the public portion of the evening, the trespassing charge remains puzzling to KCPL staff and administration—as well as one officer’s declaration during the incident that the library was “private property” and that this was a “private event.”
“This is a free event that’s open to the public,” said Woolfolk. “It’s a public library, and the notion that any third party could come in and direct the police to arrest someone for trespassing on library property, regardless of whether or not any kind of an agreement was reached beforehand, is a real problem.”
Added Kemper, “Even if they felt this was a disturbance—which we didn’t agree with them about—there were other ways to deal with it.”
At the time, KCPL opted not to go public about arrests, partly in the hope that the city prosecutor and police department would drop the charges. The library has had a good relationship with both the JCF and the police force, Kemper noted. The question of why they continue to pursue the case is foremost on everyone’s mind. “We’re just kind of stunned that the police and the prosecutors have decided that there’s something defensible here,” Kemper told LJ. “It’s not merely a violation of the First Amendment, which is really clear,” he added; “it’s the police overreacting and then digging in.”
This put Woolfolk, as one of the library’s public voices, in a difficult position, but he agreed with Kemper’s approach. “For the longest time,” said Woolfolk, “everybody at the library, myself included, just thought that one day all these parties are going to wake up and realize that this is absurd, and all this would go away. We didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. We wanted to give everybody the ample opportunity to do the right thing.”
However, he added, “Now that it’s out it’s…shining a light on something that the world needs to pay attention to,” said Woolfolk. “Not this particular incident, but the broader notion of the idea that we can and should disagree on things, and there’s no reason to become violent. You can hear something you disagree with and then everybody can go home.”
The library has experience to point to. “We’ve had much more raucous events than this,” Kemper added. “We’ve had Asar Nafisi and Gary Kasparov and folks like that who were really challenged from the audience in very demonstrative ways, and we’ve never had to put our hands on anybody.”
After several court appearances for Woolfolk and Rothe-Kushel, city prosecutors are currently scheduling depositions. After those are heard, Woolfolk hopes to proceed with a court date. “Or better yet,” he added, “between now and then, somebody will say, ‘What are we doing?’ and all of this will get dropped.”
In the meantime, he noted that KCPL has been “incredibly supportive,” including by paying his court costs. (His medical bills are covered through workman’s compensation). Rothe-Kushel has been funding his own legal fees.
MID-CONTINENT EXAMINES ITS MESSAGE
The dispute at MCPL, while quieter, also involved off-duty police serving as library security. In August, two off-duty officers employed by the library as security guards voiced their objections to the title of a display of adult, YA, and children’s books and audio materials, “Black Lives Matter—Books About African American Experiences.”
The officers could not be reached for comment, but MCPL chief customer experience officer Ritchie Momon explained to LJ that they had not objected to the actual content of the display, which consisted of 50–60 items including Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me; John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me; Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down, Sun Yung Shin’s A Good Time for the Truth: Face in Minnesota; and Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom by Shane Evans, a local author. Instead, Momon said, they felt that the title was endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement, which they argued inappropriate.
The day that the officers registered their objections was also Momon’s first day on the job at MCPL—he previously served as director of branch operations and events coordinator at KCPL for 35 years. Their comments prompted discussion between Momon, branch manager Brent Husher, and staff about the display’s intent and whether its title was sending the intended message to library customers. After careful consideration, they decided to change the display title to “Books About Black Lives.”
The library stood firmly behind the inclusion of the material it contained, Momon noted. “The purpose of the display was the experience of the African American community, the experience of the African American people…not the title,” he said. “So it was not, in my opinion, a hard decision to say we needed to change the title if that was not the message that we were sending out.”
Even after the display was retitled, two out of four off-duty officers working security at MCPL resigned. All four are still active on the police force. In the wake of the resignations, Momon told LJ, the library will not shy away from controversial topics. “Part of the reason for any display that we do is to spark a conversation,” he noted. ”We have had meetings with community leaders, religious leaders, the police department, community activists, and…customers to comment about conversations and what’s important to the community. So this is nothing that is new to what we do.”
SUPPORT FOR FREE SPEECH, DISSENT
Woolfolk has received messages of encouragement from KCPL staff and board members and supporters across the country.
American Library Association (ALA) president Julie Todaro said, in a statement, “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…. Its long history of support for free speech in public programming exemplifies the library profession’s mission to influence positive and lasting change within their communities by providing opportunities for patrons to freely express opposing viewpoints without fear of persecution.”
In addition, she added, “The ALA commends Steve Woolfolk for defending a patron’s right to question and debate matters of public concern. The association will continue to extend resources to library staff as the Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library moves forward with its legal efforts.”
The incident at KCPL has only served to strengthen Woolfolk’s beliefs about the conversations the library encourages through its programming. “This is evidence that we need to keep doing this type of thing,” Woolfolk told LJ. “The fact that there was anybody willing to silence dissent…reinforces the importance of libraries as being a place where people can come in and disagree with each other.”
Woolfolk believes that author and LGBT activist Sarah Schulman got to the heart of the matter when she spoke at KCPL in August. Schulman stated that people develop as human beings by putting themselves in situations where they hear and experience things that make them uncomfortable, he said, “and I think that applies here so nicely…. We want to be a place where people come in and feel free to express an unpopular opinion, and where people expect to hear something that maybe they’re not going to agree with.”
Added Kemper, “Librarians are defenders of freedom of speech, and that’s our position.”
As part of the regular rotation of displays at MCPL, the “Books About Black Lives” display has been replaced by one highlighting banned books; so far, no one has objected the content. “If there’s a conversation that we need to have as a community,” said Momon, “the library is still a place to have it.”