The Kansas City Star doesn’t have legal liability for printing claims that are “misleading” at best, according to a ruling by a Johnson County District Court judge yesterday. Judge Paul Gurney dismissed Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning’s defamation case against the daily paper on Tuesday. The Overland Park Republican also filed a defamation suit against former Star columnist Steve Rose. That case is still pending.

Mike Kuckelman, Denning’s attorney and the chair of the Kansas Republican Party, said the decision demonstrates that mainstream media doesn’t have legal responsibility for claims it deemed “misleading at best.”

“How do you trust the media?” Kuckelman asks.

Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning

The Star published a Rose column in January saying Denning had “finally confessed” his reasons for opposing Medicaid expansion. Denning said he hadn’t spoken to Rose in two years and that the direct quotes attributed to him in Rose’s column are false.

In an email to Rose, Star editor Colleen Nelson wrote, “The column was misleading at best…”

“Regardless of when you last spoke, the basic rules of journalism apply here,” she said in a Jan. 26 email to Rose. “If (Denning) thought he was having a casual conversation with you that was not going to end up with him quoted in your column, we can’t unilaterally decide to put this on the record. Not to mention the fact that this conversation happened long ago. Perhaps he’s had a change of heart. Perhaps he views things a little differently. We don’t actually know what he thinks today.”

The column appeared in the paper and online for several days but was eventually yanked. The Star never issued a retraction, however.

“Readers ought to be aware that mainstream publications can run columns that are false and they have no legal liability for that,” Kuckelman said.

A 2016 law, the public speech protection act, makes it difficult for individuals to sue over speech. That tort reform, which unanimously passed the legislature, allowed the Star’s attorney to argue that Denning needed to produce evidence of malice– before discovery– to sue. The court said it couldn’t find malice on the part of the Star and ruled Denning must pay the paper’s legal fees, estimated to be about $40,000. Denning can appeal the decision.

“This is one judge’s view of that public speech statute,” Kuckelman said.  “…This case highlights what can happen with some of the tort reform we passed in Kansas…. People have in mind some frivolous case, and they don’t consider cases like this one.”

The defamation case against Rose is a different situation, Kuckelman said. 

“Malice is inferred if a writer makes up quotes like this.”

Hearings for that case are set for late July.

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