Unlike America’s universities, the Kansas City Public Library is genuinely committed to free speech from all perspectives. Under the direction of R. Crosby Kemper III, the library runs a lively and popular series of public events at which audience feedback is encouraged.
Library events proceeded with an impressive degree of civility over the years until the evening of May 9, 2016. On that memorable night, all hell broke loose in ways that no could have anticipated. Speaking that evening was Dennis Ross, a seasoned Jewish-American diplomat who worked under several presidents with a focus on the Middle East. Ross’s was the inaugural Truman and Israel Lecture, an event established by the Truman Library Institute and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Kansas City.
After his speech, Jeremy Rothe-Kushel, a leftist curmudgeon from Lawrence, moved quickly to the open microphone. Like many on the left, Rothe-Kushel is no friend of Israel. His Twitter page makes this clear. “Even now CIA chief Pompeo failed to deny that the Iranian ‘threat’ is concocted by Zionist press,” he tweeted this summer. Something of a conspiracy theorist, he tweeted recently, “9/11 data leads to political Zionist ethno-religiously Jewish NYC cell.” From the right, this accusation would be considered hate speech, but that is a subject for another day.
Rothe-Kushel’s question to Ross was reasonably civil. He addressed the issue of “state-sponsored terrorism” by Israel and the United States and asked, “When are we going to stand up and be ethical Jews and Americans?” After Ross answered, Rothe-Kushel attempted to follow up, still speaking calmly, when a private security guard hired by the Jewish Community Foundation grabbed his arm. With him was a KCPD officer also hired by the Foundation.
“Get your hands off me right now,” yelled Rothe-Kushel, who now had at least two security people trying to remove him. At this point, Steve Woolfolk, director of public programming for the library, tried to intervene. “Hey,” said Woolfolk, “he has a right to speak.” A friend of Rothe-Kushel recorded the incident on video.
The police arrested both of the men, Rothe-Kushel for trespassing and resisting arrest and Woolfolk for interfering with an arrest. Kemper was stunned, “I’m actually outraged,” he said. “This is a big violation of the very first amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”
The charges against Rothe-Kushelwere eventually dropped and on Friday a Municipal Court judge cleared Woolfolk. “I don’t understand how this kind of thing could happen at a public event,” said Judge Joseph Locascio. “You’re going to have people say ridiculous things at a public event. . . . You scratch your head and move on.”
Said Kemper, “Justice was done. The Library, like the judge, has consistently expressed surprise that this ever went to trial, that a public event at a public library should result in the indictment of a librarian.”