Free-Speech Case Over Patron's Arrest At The Kansas City Public Library Finally Comes To An End
A lawsuit stemming from the highly publicized expulsion of a Kansas City library patron from a public event nearly four years ago has drawn to an end after the judge ruled in favor of the lone remaining defendant.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Beth Phillips found for an off-duty police detective who arrested Jeremy Rothe-Kushel, a documentary filmmaker from Lawrence who sued the detective and 13 other defendants over the incident, which drew national headlines.
Rothe-Kushel claimed his First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated after he was physically restrained on May 9, 2016, following a lecture at the library’s Plaza branch by American diplomat and former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross.
The lecture, about President Harry Truman's recognition of the state of Israel, was organized by the Jewish Community Foundation and the Truman Library Institute. Following the April 2014 shootings that left three people dead at the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom in Overland Park, there was heightened security at the event.
During a planned question-and-answer session after the lecture, Rothe-Kushel stepped up to the microphone and asked Ross a long, rambling question alluding to what he said was a history of state-sponsored terrorism by Israel and the United States.
Ross responded and Rothe-Kushel began arguing with him. At that point, the man in charge of security for the event, Blair Hawkins, began to physically remove Rothe-Kushel from the microphone. Hawkins was director of security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, which had hired him following the 2014 shootings.
Video of the incident shows Hawkins grabbing Rothe-Kushel’s arm, telling him “You’re done” and attempting to remove him from the mic. Rothe-Kushel is seen yelling even as a second person approaches the mic to ask a question.
Rothe-Kushel was later arrested in the lobby after an off-duty officer hired for the event asked for his identification and he refused to give it. The library’s director of programming and marketing, Steven Woolfolk, was also arrested after he sought to intervene and prevent Rothe-Kushel’s removal.
Woolfolk was later charged with obstruction, interfering with an arrest and assaulting a police officer. After a day-long trial in September 2017, a Kansas City Municipal Court judge acquitted him of all three charges.
The actions taken by the officers sparked outrage among civil libertarians and were condemned by the library’s then-executive director, R. Crosby Kemper III, who said the officers had overreacted.
Rothe-Kushel’s lawsuit named 14 defendants, including officials of the Jewish Community Foundation and the Truman Library Institute; the off-duty policemen involved in the incident; Kansas City Chief of Police Rick Smith; and members of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, including then-Kansas City Mayor Sly James.
Rothe-Kushel later voluntarily dismissed his claims against the members of the police board and the off-duty officers, except for the detective who arrested him, Brent Parsons.
The claims against officials of the Jewish Community Foundation and Truman Library Institute had been dismissed earlier in the case – although it’s not clear if they were dismissed because the organizations reached settlements with Rothe-Kushel or because of the merits of their legal defenses.
“I can say that matters as to other defendants were concluded,” said Arthur Benson, one of Rothe-Kushel’s attorneys. “That’s all I can say.”
Officials of the Jewish Community Foundation and Truman Library declined to comment or could not be reached for comment.
In her 12-page ruling Thursday in favor of Parsons, Judge Phillips found that Parsons had probable cause to arrest Rothe-Kushel for trespassing and for refusing to provide his identification.
She also found that while Rothe-Kushel had a First Amendment right to ask Ross questions, that right was not limitless: “(H)e could not ask so many questions that other audience members were deprived of the opportunity, and he had no right to argue with Ambassador Ross (and no right to expect Ambassador Ross to engage in such an argument).”
Finally, Phillips found against Rothe-Kushel on his claims of conspiracy to violate his civil rights, false arrest and conspiracy under state law.
Rothe-Kushel, reached by email, declined to say whether he had reached settlements with any of the defendants.
Fred Slough, another attorney representing Rothe-Kushel, said it was “a serious wrong” for Rothe-Kushel to have been removed and arrested. He said Rothe-Kushel would have complied with a request to leave the library.
“Instead he was grabbed and manhandled in the middle of an exchange with the Ambassador that was not a disturbance, except in the sense that some in the audience audibly disagreed with its content,” Slough said via email. “The law does not allow such a ‘heckler's veto’ of free speech.”
Editor's note: This story was updated with Rothe-Kushel's comment.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.