Kansas City Librarian Acquitted Of Charges Stemming From 2016 Public Event

Sep 9, 2017

Steven Woolfolk of the Kansas City Public Library was acquitted Friday of charges he interfered with an arrest at a May 2016 public event.
Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3

After hearing more than five hours of testimony late Friday afternoon, Kansas City Municipal Judge Joseph H. Locascio handed down a decision in a matter of minutes: With a few quick words, he found Steven Paul Woolfolk, director of programming and marketing at the Kansas City Public Library, not guilty of three charges stemming from an incident at a library event in May 2016.

Woolfolk’s attorney, Bronwyn Werner, said she was grateful.

“I feel like justice has truly been done today and I’m very pleased with the court’s ruling in such a swift and emphatic manner,” she said.

Controversial Topic

The charges date to a public event at the Plaza branch of the library on May 9, 2016. The Truman Library Institute, The Jewish Community Foundation and the library sponsored a talk by Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy and U.S. diplomat. Ross spoke about U.S. presidents' attitudes toward Israel.

During a question and answer period following his talk, off-duty police working for The Jewish Community Foundation forcefully removed a patron, Jeremy Rothe-Kushel, who had asked Ross about U.S. support for what he termed Israel’s “state-sponsored terrorism."

Woolfolk, who typically oversees security at library events, intervened on Rothe-Kushel’s behalf. 

“We try to be very lenient during our question and answer (periods),” Woolfolk testified. “We are the public library and free speech is central to everything we do.”  

Differing Accounts

Detective Frank Parsons, one of the off-duty officers, testified that Woolfolk “wedged his body” and pushed police as they tried to arrest Rothe-Kushel.  

When they tried to arrest Woolfolk, he said Woolfolk “got tense” and wouldn’t put his hands behind his back, making it difficult to put on handcuffs.

“I wasn’t ‘tensing up,’” Woolfolk testified. “I’m overweight and my arms don’t go behind my back as easily as someone might think they should.”

Woolfolk eventually was charged with resisting arrest, interfering with an arrest and assaulting an officer. The latter two charges were added nearly a year after Woolfolk was arrested.

Rothe-Kushel was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest, but prosecutors dropped the charges earlier this year.

Should Not Have Been Prosecuted

The library’s executive director, Crosby Kemper III, expressed outrage over Woolfolk's arrest, which drew national attention. The incident was written up in American Libraries Magazine as well as The New York Review of Books. As Friday afternoon melted into the dinner hour and Kemper was waiting to testify, his patience began to run dry.

“It’s hard to believe this took 16 months,” Kemper said. “It’s hard to believe (the city) ever decided to prosecute a librarian for being involved in protecting the First Amendment at a public event in a public library. It’s just crazy.”

In handing down his verdict, Locascio appeared to agree. Throwing up his hands in incredulity, he wondered how the case ended up in court.

"I don't get it," he exclaimed. "This is a public event. You're going to have people say ridiculous things at public events."

After Locascio ruled, City Prosecutor Michael Heffernon declined to comment, saying he would need approval from his supervisor.

Woolfolk said he has not decided whether to pursue civil charges against the city. The minor physical injuries he sustained during his arrest are mostly gone, he said, and the psychological affects are fading.

The one thing he can’t stop doing is crying, he said. But now they're tears of joy.

Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer. Follow her on Twitter, @laurazig or email lauraz@kcur.org.