Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, (R) Overland Park, is suing the Kansas City Star and columnist Steve Rose for defamation. The case was filed in Johnson County District on Monday afternoon following the publication of a column that claimed Denning, a Johnson County Republican, “confessed” reasons he rejects Medicaid expansion. Denning hasn’t spoken to Rose, the column’s author, in more than two years, Denning’s attorney Michael Kuckelman says.
“Those comments were not made by Senator Denning,” he said. “They didn’t interview him before they wrote the article.”
In a press release, Denning said it’s inconceivable how the Star could publish such damaging lies.
“This sloppy treatment of the truth by journalists has to end,” Denning writes in the release. “The public needs to rely on reporting based on truth.”
Rose wrote that Denning said America doesn’t need another entitlement program, and that he called Medicaid “a financial albatross on the country.” Rose also reported that Denning said Medicaid patients often don’t show up to their appointments, and that able-bodied Kansans abuse the system by accepting free medical care. Denning didn’t make those statements, according to the lawsuit.
In an email string between Rose and Ethan Patterson, Denning’s chief of staff, Rose offers to resign from the Star if Denning agrees to “let it drop.”
Denning didn’t take him up on the offer.
“That’s an easy solution for Mr. Rose’s predicament: what about the damage caused by that column and its imaginary facts that are now circulating on the internet?” Denning’s press release reads.
Even if the Star retracts the column, “as it should immediately, the damage is done,” Denning said.
The lawsuit seeks $75,000 in damages.
“To be clear, this lawsuit doesn’t stem from a columnist being critical of my political views or the Star’s Editorial Board disagreeing with my votes in the Kansas Senate,” Denning said. “This is about a newspaper making up lies and selling those lies to the public as fact.”
The First Amendment gives a lot of latitude to journalists when they write about public officials, but Kuckelman says this is a rare instance where an elected official could successfully sue for defamation and win.
“There has to be a line. The First Amendment can only protect media up to some point,” Kuckelman said. “The bright line ought to be if you attribute statements to an elected official without interviewing the subject of the article. That surely doesn’t deserve protection.”
In addition to serving as Denning’s attorney, Kuckelman is a candidate for chair of the Kansas GOP.
The Star did not respond to a request for comment.