March 4, 2024

Keeping Media and Government Accountable.

Sen. Denning: Star’s Legal Defense ‘Absurd’

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The Kansas City Star wants a defamation lawsuit against it thrown out, because it violates the First Amendment.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning filed a defamation lawsuit against the Star in January after the paper published a column claiming Denning had “confessed” reasons for rejecting Medicaid expansion. Denning, a Johnson County Republican, hadn’t spoken to the column’s author, Steve Rose, for more than two years when the column appeared in the Jan. 26 edition of the paper.

“It is blatantly obvious that (Denning) has brought this lawsuit to cry ‘Fake News,'” Bernard Rhodes, attorney for Cypress Media which owns and operates the Kansas City Star, wrote in a brief requesting the lawsuit’s dismissal.

The brief alleges Denning can’t prove that the Star acted with actual malice, because Denning voted against expanding Medicaid in 2017 and made statements recently to suggest he hasn’t changed his mind.

“In the face of utter hypocrisy by Sen. Denning (and his lawyer), The Star has moved to strike Sen. Denning’s petition under a law he helped pass in 2016, the Public Speech Participation Act,” the brief reads.

The 2016 law, known as the SLAPP Act, aims to prevent lawsuits from being used to silence criticism or chill individuals from exercising their rights to free speech. In addition to requesting the Court throw out Denning’s suit against the Star, the paper’s attorneys seek to have Denning pay their legal fees.

The brief doesn’t say whether the Star’s attorney thinks Denning can prove actual malice against Rose. The Star’s legal response includes an email exchange between Rose and Star editor Colleen McCain Nelson. She asks Rose to attribute quotes in his column to a senator, because they don’t contain sensitive information or anything beyond “making pretty familiar arguments against Medicaid.”

“There’s no way I can justify letting him be anonymous,” she writes in he email. Rose responds, It’s Denning.

In a press release, Denning said The Star acknowledged Rose’s column didn’t meet its standards. He said the lawsuit is about journalistic integrity and telling the truth.

“The Star has repeatedly published incorrect and misleading articles about me and has attributed false statements to me. These aren’t just claims I disagree with. They’re false statements,” Denning said.

In an interview the day the lawsuit was filed, Denning’s attorney, Mike Kuckelman said the First Amendment only protects media up to a certain point.

“The bright line ought to be if you attribute statements to an elected official without interviewing the subject of the article,” he said. “That surely doesn’t deserve protection.”

Rhodes accuses Denning and Kuckleman of using the lawsuit for publicity to obtain political goals. He cites a Denning tweet as evidence of it. The tweet links to an article from a national online publication.

“Getting national coverage on my law suit against Steve Rose and the KC Star,” it reads.

Denning said the Star is playing politics for filing a response the day the Kansas Republican Party Convention starts.

“That’s no accident. The Star has gone from reporting on politics to now engaging in politics. I’ve come to expect this unethical tactic from the Star,” Denning said.

The Star’s brief also says that Kuckelman is using the lawsuit to promote his candidacy for chair of the Kansas Republican Party.

“Sen. Denning and his grandstanding lawyer have abused the judicial system for their political goals in filing a lawsuit bereft of any facts,” Rhodes wrote. “…It is blatantly obvious these two Republican insiders lobbed this meritless grenade of a lawsuit against The Star because they wanted to issue a press release and beat the drum of “Fake News” and bolster Mr. Kuckelman’s candidacy for Chair of the Kansas Republican Party.”

Denning called the accusation “absurd.”

“This lawsuit is important, because it points out the sloppy, unethical, and reckless article written by Steve Rose and published by the Star,” he said. “It’s about making them answer for it.”

The election for leadership will be on Feb. 16. Kuckelman is running unopposed for the chairmanship.

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