Former Star columnist Steve Rose seeks to have Sen. Jim Denning’s defamation suit dismissed

Jim Denning (center) at a candidate forum ahead of the 2016 election.

The attorney representing former Kansas City Star columnist Steve Rose against a defamation suit brought by Overland Park Sen. Jim Denning filed a motion in Johnson County District Court on Friday to have the case tossed out.

Saying that Denning’s suit fails to establish a viable defamation claim, the memo asserts that the legal action against Rose was filed to “score political points, while punishing and shaming a critic, in violation of basic free-speech principles.”

Attorney Michael Kuckelman filed the initial suit against Rose and the Kansas City Star on behalf of Denning in January after the paper ran a column in which Rose appeared to indicate that he had recently spoken to Denning about his position on Medicaid expansion. In fact, Rose later acknowledged, the two of them had discussed Medicaid expansion and Denning’s reasons for opposing it during a meeting at Houlihan’s in Fairway “some time ago.”

But, as the attorney representing the Kansas City Star argued in a similar motion to dismiss the suit in February, to be successful, defamation suits must prove that the defendant knew that he was making a false statement. Both the Star’s attorney and the attorney representing Rose have pointed to Denning’s history of opposition to Medicaid expansion as evidence that nothing in the column rose to the level of legal actionability.

“In reality, Rose’s comments are substantially true in that they report Denning’s steadfast, unchanged views on Medicaid expansion which he has voiced for years,” attorney Eric Weslander of Stevens & Brand LLP*, which is representing Rose in the case, said of the rationale for the motion to seek dismissal.

Rose is seeking to have the case dismissed under Kansas’s anti-SLAPP statute, which gives defendants the right to ask judges to throw out what they believe to be “meritless lawsuits that chill free speech.”

“Denning’s claims must fail because of basic free-speech principles which are firmly embedded in the legal traditions of this nation and the state of Kansas, and which afford the highest level of protection possible to criticism of public officials,” Weslander writes.

But Kuckelman counters that Rose’s framing of the comments he attributed to Denning in the piece was misleading and not protected by the First Amendement.

“Their defense appears to be that Senator Denning is opposed to Medicaid expansion and therefore, the First Amendment permits them to attribute comments to Senator Denning in regard to his reasons for opposing Medicaid expansion even though Senator Denning never made the comments,” Kuckelman writes. “The bottom line is that Mr. Rose falsely attributed comments to Senator Denning rather than interviewing Senator Denning. The First Amendment does not protect Mr. Rose or the KC Star in their misleading their readers in this way.”

Kuckelman, of Overland Park, was elected to a two-year term as the chair of the Kansas Republican Party in February.

Editor’s note: Stevens & Brand has been the legal counsel of record for Post Publishing, Inc., and the Shawnee Mission Post since spring 2017.