An attorney representing the Kansas City Star against a defamation suit brought by Overland Park Sen. Jim Denning has filed a motion to have the case tossed out, claiming that Denning’s suit violates the Public Speech Protection Act that Denning himself voted to make law in 2016.
Commonly known as an anti-SLAPP statute, the act gives defendants the right to petition to have what they believe to be “meritless lawsuits that chill free speech” thrown out. In the petition filed in Johnson County District Court this morning, The Star’s attorney Bernie Rhodes claims that the Steve Rose column at the center of the suit did not meet the legal requirements for defamation.
In his lawsuit, Denning claimed that Rose attributed statements about Denning’s position on Medicaid expansion to him that Denning never made. Denning claimed he hadn’t spoken to Rose since 2016. The Star ultimately removed the column from its website saying that it was investigating Denning’s claims.
Denning’s suit sought legal fees and damages for defamation “for an amount exceeding $75,000.” The Star’s counter-motion calls for Denning to have to pay its legal fees related to the case.
In the petition filed today, Rhodes also charges that Denning’s attorney Michael Kuckelman was using the lawsuit to raise his profile as he made a run to become 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 — no less the clear and convincing facts required under Kansas law. It is patently obvious these two Republican Party insiders lobbed this meritless hand grenade of a lawsuit against the The Star because they wanted to issue a press release announcing the lawsuit to beat the drum of “Fake News” and bolster Mr. Kuckelman’s candidacy for the Chair of the Kansas Republican Party. Sen. Denning and Mr. Kuckelman are deeply engaged in the “rough and tumble” of party politics. As such, they are fair targets of criticism. Here, that criticism is imminently fair, and is not legally actionable. The Public Speech Protection Act was enacted to punish precisely this type of lawsuit.
The Kansas GOP 2019 State Convention, during which the party will elect a statewide chair, begins today.
The full petition is embedded below: