Two National Awards Laud Kansas City Public Library’s Defense of Free Speech

Wednesday, April 19, 2017
Courtney Lewis

(Kansas City, Missouri) – The Kansas City Public Library and its director of programming and marketing, Steven Woolfolk, are the recipients of two prestigious awards commending their defense of free speech.

Both stem from a Library event a year ago, when Woolfolk advocated for the First Amendment rights of a patron who was accosted during the public program’s question-and-answer session by outside security personnel under the direction of an event co-sponsor. 

The 60,000-member American Library Association named the Library as the recipient of its 2017 Paul Howard Award for Courage, given biannually for “unusual courage for the benefit of library programs or services.” Woolfolk has been awarded the 2017 Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity, established by the best-selling author and the ALA to recognize individuals who have “faced adversity with integrity and dignity intact.”

The awards will be presented during the ALA’s annual conference in Chicago in June.

“It is a privilege that the award jury recognizes the Kansas City Public Library for encouraging open public discourse on controversial topics and, when that opportunity was challenged and in jeopardy, they intervened to support their community members and the right to have these conversations,” said Teri R. Switzer, a retired dean and professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and chair of the Paul Howard Award for Courage committee.

Becca Worthington of the Charlotte (North Carolina) Mecklenburg Library, who heads the jury for the Lemony Snicket Prize, said of Woolfolk, “Without thought or hesitation, he heroically stood for one of the American Library Association’s most crucial tenants, which is the right to freedom of speech. Now more than ever, it is important to have people like Mr. Woolfolk in the public eye taking bold steps in support of the fact that libraries are places where all points of view are welcome.”

The incident came near the end of a May 9, 2016, Library event at its Plaza Branch that featured longtime Middle East envoy Dennis Ross. A Jewish-American activist, Jeremy Rothe-Kushel, was first to the microphone when the presentation turned to Q&A, and his question suggested that the U.S. and Israel have engaged in state-sponsored terrorism. After Ross responded, Rothe-Kushel attempted to follow up and was grabbed by a private security guard employed by the event co-sponsor and then by others in the security detail, which included off-duty police.

Rothe-Kushel was led away and arrested for trespassing and resisting arrest despite Woolfolk’s insistence that the Library encourages public discourse and did not wish to have the person removed. Woolfolk ultimately was arrested and charged with interfering with an arrest.

Library Director Crosby Kemper III decried the security team’s response as “an egregious violation of First Amendment rights.”

Said Daniel Handler, who writes under the pen name Lemony Snicket, “I have long relied on librarians to stand up for our essential rights of freedom and expression. Mr. Woolfolk’s commitment and gumption are inspiring to behold, and it is an honor to stand up for him in the form of an ovation.” 

Woolfolk, who has been with the Library for 11 years and has overseen its expansive public programming since August 2015, also has been lauded for his actions by the Urban Libraries Council and Missouri Library Association, among other institutions and organizations. 

“I am at once excited and humbled by this honor,” he said of the Lemony Snicket Prize. “I would be delighted to accept the award on behalf of myself and everyone at the Kansas City Public Library and the larger library community who have supported me over the last year.”