A Kansas City Public library patron who was forcibly removed from a public event nearly two years ago is suing Kansas City police officials and others, saying they deprived him of his constitutional rights.
Jeremy Rothe-Kushel, an activist and documentary filmmaker who lives in Lawrence, was physically restrained and escorted from the event on May 9, 2016. It was the inaugural Truman and Israel Lecture, given at the library's Plaza branch by American diplomat Dennis Ross.
Police said Rothe-Kushel was being disruptive by talking over Ross and trying to ask a second question while other audience members were waiting to ask questions. Rothe-Kushel said he was merely exercising his First Amendment rights.
After the library’s director of programming and marketing, Steven Woolfolk, sought to intervene and prevent Rothe-Kushel’s arrest, he too was arrested.
Woolfolk was later charged with obstruction, interfering with an arrest and assaulting a police officer. After a day-long trial last September, a Kansas City Municipal Court judge acquitted Woolfolk of all three charges.
The incident at the library sparked outrage among civil libertarians and drew fierce condemnation from the library’s executive director, R. Crosby Kemper III, who later told KCUR that off-duty police officers had overreacted when they arrested the two men.
Reached after the lawsuit was filed late Thursday evening, Rothe-Kushel said, "Our personally held rights to peaceably assemble, speak freely and to record and publish our understandings are the foundation of our nation's traditions of self-governance and rule of law. We must vigorously practice, preserve, protect and defend them."
The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Kansas City, seeks actual and punitive damages for alleged violations of Rothe-Kushel’s First and Fourth Amendment rights; conspiracy to violate his civil rights; battery; false arrest; conspiracy; and other counts.
The suit names 14 defendants, including officials of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Kansas City and the Truman Library Institute, which co-sponsored the event; the off-duty policemen involved in the incident; Kansas City Chief of Police Richard C. Smith; and members of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, including Kansas City Mayor Sly James.
The police chief and the board of police commissioners are being sued for their alleged failure to properly train and supervise their officers.
None of the defendants could be reached for comment Thursday evening. But after Woolfolk went on trial last September, officials of the Jewish Community Foundation released a statement calling the publicity surrounding the incident "unfortunate."
"The Foundation will continue to prioritize safety and to insist on civility in discourse and respect for others at all events in which it takes a leadership role," it said.
Ross, a special envoy to the Middle East who served in three different presidential administrations, had concluded a lecture on “Truman and Israel” and was taking questions from the audience when Rothe-Kushel stepped up to the microphone. The library auditorium, which seats 550 people, was packed and more than 100 other people were watching via closed circuit TV on the main floor of the library.
Rothe-Kushel, who is described in the lawsuit as a “Jewish-Mexican-American,” asked Ross a long, rambling question referencing what he said was a history of state-sponsored terrorism by Israel and the United States.
He concluded: "When are we going to stand up and be ethical Jews and Americans?"
Ross responded by paraphrasing a quote attributed to sociologist and former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan that everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts.
At that point, the man in charge of security for the event, Blair Howell Hawkins, began to physically remove Rothe-Kushel from the microphone, according to the lawsuit. At the time, Hawkins was director of security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, which had hired him following the April 13, 2014, shootings that left three people dead at the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom in Overland Park, Kansas.
Rothe-Kushel’s lawsuit says the library’s staff understood there was “an elevated level of concern” after the shootings, “and so they agreed to allow the off-duty police officers to be there for the event.”
The heightened security was a first for the library, which had never had “a scenario where someone had to be physically restrained and removed,” the lawsuit states. The library had stipulated beforehand that no one could be removed simply for asking a question “perceived to be unpopular or disliked” and that library staff would be consulted first if officers thought someone needed to be removed, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that Hawkins had singled out Rothe-Kushel for surveillance even before the event got underway in the library auditorium, asking one of the off-duty officers to search him and a friend while they were waiting outside.
“Rothe-Kushel did not know why they were getting that kind of attention and was a little bit surprised,” the lawsuit says. “He considered the possibility that since he had RSVP’d and had been on the public record around political issues, some of which are considered controversial, that had caused attention to be directed his way at times.”
After Rothe-Kushel posed his question to Ross, the lawsuit says, Hawkins grabbed him by the arm and told him “You’re done.”
Rothe-Kushel responded by pulling away from him and yelling, “Do not touch me! Get your hands off me right now! You can ask me to leave. I will leave if asked. I will leave if asked. I will leave if asked. Get your hands off me!” according to the lawsuit. (The incident was recorded on video by Rothe-Kushel's friend.)
At that point, Woolfolk intervened, telling Hawkins that he was removing somebody from the building for asking an unpopular question, contrary to the earlier agreement with the library.
The group then left the auditorium through a side door. In the hallway outside, another off-duty policeman handcuffed Rothe-Kushel and booked him on charges of trespass and resisting arrest. The charges were later dropped by prosecutors.
Arthur Benson, one of Rothe-Kushel's attorneys, said his client "is and always has been a peaceful and peace-loving critic of Israel's offenses against the freedom and liberty of peoples subjected to its authoritarian politics."
"The suppression of lawful speech at the library is what happens when people and organizations let their irrational fears of criticism dictate their unconstitutional conduct," Benson said.
The 2016 incident reverberated widely, drawing coverage abroad, including in Israel. Last year, the American Library Association awarded the Kansas City Public Library its Paul Howard Award for Courage, given every two years for “unusual courage for the benefit of library programs or services.” Woolfolk received the Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity.
Rothe-Kushel told the Kansas City Star in November 2016 that he had been offered a plea deal calling for him not to sue in exchange for community service and no jail time. He turned down the deal.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.