The Kansas City Public Library's defense of the First Amendment has earned it the 2017 Downs Intellectual Freedom Award. The award is given annually by the faculty of the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and cosponsored by Libraries Unlimited.
On May 9, 2016, the Kansas City Public Library (KCPL), in cooperation with the Truman Library Institute and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Kansas City, hosted a talk by Dennis Ross, a former advisor on the Middle East to Presidents George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama and currently a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. During the question-and-answer period, library patron Jeremy Rothe-Kushel asked about U.S. support for what he called Israel's "state-sponsored terrorism." After Ross responded, Rothe-Kushel attempted to follow up and was grabbed by a private security guard, followed by an off-duty police officer, both of whom had been hired by the Jewish Community Foundation.
Steve Woolfolk, KCPL's director of programming, intervened, noting that discourse is accepted and encouraged at a public event held in a public library. He was physically injured by the officers and arrested.
R. Crosby Kemper III, KCPL executive director, said the private security guard was not acting on behalf of the library and had no right to remove a patron for asking a question. When the charges against Woolfolk were not dropped, KCPL went public with the incident. In September 2017, a municipal court judge found Woolfolk not guilty on all charges.
Woolfolk has been lauded for his actions by the American Library Association (ALA), Urban Libraries Council, and Missouri Library Association. He was 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."
In addition, the KCPL received ALA’s 2017 Paul Howard Award for Courage, given biannually for “unusual courage for the benefit of library programs or services.”
According to nominator Kate Williams, associate professor at the iSchool, "Giving the Downs Award to the Kansas City Public Library, especially these librarians, will help educate many people nationwide and beyond as to the special roles of the public library, the police, and private security forces in a democratic society, and the boundaries we all navigate to protect free speech and intellectual freedom."
A reception to honor the KCPL will take place during the Midwinter Meeting of the ALA in Denver, Colorado, on Saturday, February 10, 2018, from 5:30-7:00 p.m. in Ellingwood Rooms A and B at the Crowne Plaza Downtown Denver. Libraries Unlimited provides an honorarium for the recipient and cosponsors the reception.
The Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award is presented annually to acknowledge individuals or groups who have furthered the cause of intellectual freedom, particularly as it affects libraries and information centers and the dissemination of ideas. Granted to those who have resisted censorship or efforts to abridge the freedom of individuals to read or view materials of their choice, the award may be given in recognition of a particular action or long-term interest in, and dedication to, the cause of intellectual freedom. The award was established in 1969 by the iSchool's faculty to honor Robert Downs, a champion of intellectual freedom, on his twenty-fifth anniversary as director of the School.
With Libraries Unlimited, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, assuming cosponsorship of the award in 2012, ABC-CLIO has been dedicated to supporting the Downs Award for more than thirty years. As a publisher committed to advancing library professional development and independent critical thought, Libraries Unlimited and the entire ABC-CLIO family are strong advocates of intellectual freedom rights and the dissemination of all ideas. The iSchool at Illinois is very honored to share sponsorship with Libraries Unlimited and appreciates the contributions it and the other imprints of ABC-CLIO have made in defending intellectual freedom through the years.