By: Ken Sawdon
Although the incident happened back in May, my mind keeps returning to the arrests and assault at the Kansas City Public Library (KCPL) event. There’s a worry that authorities will skip targeting library staff and directly target library patrons instead. I’m scared about the damage this can do to the safe environments and welcoming atmosphere that has been carefully and painstakingly crafted by library staff for patrons.
I’m going to put on my paranoia hat and think aloud about the KCPL arrests and the possibility of new cases where patrons are evicted from libraries without library consent. If removing patrons without library agreement becomes a new political policy or strategy, it would greatly harm intellectual freedom and the safe spaces that library staff have tirelessly worked to create. The KCPL case from May, popularized after the library made a public statement in late September, could (again, paranoia hat) become a new tactic for suppression of “dangerous” talk.
The KCPL incident received a lot of attention, and several links to articles were included in the OIF’s Intellectual Freedom News. To briefly summarize, the case involves activist and library patron Jeremy Rothe-Kushel, and Steve Woolfolk, the KCPL director of public programming. Both were arrested during the Q&A session following a speech by Dennis Ross. Ross is a former Bush Administration official and current Washington Institute for Near East Policy distinguished fellow. According to the Associated Press, the patron, who believes he was targeted before the event because of his activism, asked the speaker whether “Jewish Americans … should be concerned about actions by the U.S. and Israel that amount to ‘state-sponsored terrorism.'” Ross answered the question, but when the patron started to follow-up, he was grabbed by private security and an off-duty officer and going to be forcibly removed (his offers to leave peacefully weren’t met with sympathy).
According to the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and Defending Dissent Foundation, Woolfolk quickly intervened, asking the security and off-duty officer to let the patron leave voluntarily, which they did. Before Woolfolk could report the incident to a supervisor, an off-duty and out-of-uniform officer proceeded to “[grab] him from behind and [throw] him against a pillar” without identifying himself, and then an officer in uniform “delivered several blows to Woolfolk’s knee” (causing injury) and arrested him.
When Woolfolk asked “what he was being arrested for, the officer told him he didn’t know,” according to the BoRDC & DDF.
The patron was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest, and Woolfolk was charged with interfering with that arrest. The legal case is still pending, but in mid-November the patron’s plea deal was revealed. Both the patron and Woolfolk declined the offered plea deals.
This incident is disturbing and an obvious violation of the First Amendment. Woolfolk and the KCPL system has received support from around the country, including a message from ALA President Julie Todaro. Todaro commended the KCPL for its commitment to intellectual freedom and Steve Woolfolk, “for defending a patron’s right to question and debate matters of public concern.” She confirmed that “the association will continue to extend resources to library staff as the Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library moves forward with its legal efforts.”
I remain hopeful that the cases against Woolfolk and Rothe-Kushel will be dismissed. The alternative starts a very dangerous precedent.
If this legal case against the two is successful, it can start a precedent that police officers, on duty or off, have the right to arrest a patron for trespassing without the support of library staff or library policies. Officers would be more empowered to arrest or dismiss patrons directly against the wishes of library staff.
If a person is suspected of dissident thought and is being watched, it’s easier to suppress their speech at a library event than many other places. It’s moderately difficult to take content down online if you don’t control the platform, and things like Tor or VPN services can hide the source of transmissions fairly well. But at a library event, the suspect will be there in person and easily “caught red-handed,” speaking whatever thoughts now qualify as eviction-worthy, or worse.
Of course, the library can and should evict people sometimes. Libraries serve all types, and some people are inconsiderate, disruptive, violent, or make questionable public decisions and should be removed from the building or event. It’s common practice in many urban libraries to have security available to help certain patrons leave the premises safely and quickly. However, it’s vital the library staff and the communities that they serve determine what qualifies as trespassing and appropriate library behavior.
Librarians around the world have a long history of being targeted by the authorities and imprisoned. This is a history we should be proud of. John Mack Freeman recently wrote here on the OIF blog about a Russian librarian questionably jailed under suspicion of providing banned materials. It’s awful when library staff are persecuted for upholding intellectual freedom, access to information, and our other core beliefs, but it’s the choice of these brave librarians to stand up for their communities and collections.
Patrons cannot be expected to put themselves at risk in the same way that library staff members do. Some patrons and friends of the library do stand arm in arm to protect the library, but it’s our duty and not theirs. Evicting library patrons directly against the wishes of the library staff, as in the incident at KCPL, undermines our ability to serve our communities and harms the trust and safe spaces we’ve built.
I will reiterate that this is me putting on my paranoia hat. I see little reason to believe the Kansas City case will turn poorly for the two defendants, or that there are secret widespread policies to target people at library events. But the Kansas City case is more than assault and free speech violations; it’s a violation of our desire to promote intellectual freedom and honest, unfiltered debate in our communities. It’s an attack on our right to choose the limits of discussion for ourselves. It’s a warning to our patrons that, “sure, library staff members say you can be open with your thoughts and opinions — but maybe there’s an out-of-uniform cop or private security member in attendance that disagrees.”
Ken Sawdon is a Footage Curation and Metadata Specialist at Dissolve Ltd., a startup stock footage and photo company. He is a recent MLIS graduate from the University of Alberta, where his activities included co-chair of the Forum for Information Professionals student conference and community activist and blogger for the Future Librarians for Intellectual Freedom. He has been a volunteer librarian for the Aero Space Museum of Calgary as well as a Collections Assistant at Fort Calgary. He loves wading through policy and legislation, especially intellectual property issues and professional association rhetoric. You can find and connect with him at @kainous on Twitter.