(CN) – A Kansas judge has tossed a defamation lawsuit against The Kansas City Star brought by Kansas Senate Republican Leader Jim Denning, finding that the lawmaker failed to show malice.
Johnson County District Court Judge Paul Gurney said on Tuesday that Gurney did not meet the requirements to sue under the Kansas Speech Protection Act, a law Denning voted for that limits meritless lawsuits over free speech. Additionally, the judge ordered Denning to pay The Star’s attorney fees, roughly $40,000.
Gurney ruled that the newspaper did not maliciously publish a column in January that criticized Denning for opposing Medicaid expansion in the state. Denning sued The Star and columnist Steve Rose, saying that Rose made up false statements attributed to the Overland Park lawmaker.
Rose, an unpaid contributor to the newspaper, quit a few days after the lawsuit was filed. Gurney said he would issue a ruling on Denning’s defamation claims against Rose at a later date.
“From the start, it was evident that this was a political ploy and an attempt to generate headlines — not a legitimate lawsuit,” Colleen McCain Nelson, The Star’s vice president and editorial page editor, said in a statement.
Gurney found that Nelson did not have reason to believe that the column contained false information and made note that there were no previous issues with Rose’s credibility. The Star did pull the column after Denning filed the lawsuit and said it had been years since he spoke with Rose.
Denning took to Twitter after the ruling was issued, claiming victory in the dismissal.
“We are obviously disappointed the judge dismissed our malice case against the KC Star,” Denning tweeted. “The Star admitted the Steve Rose article did not meet their standards and had it immediately deleted. The lawsuit has forced the Star to publicly admit the comments made in the Rose article were false. With the evidence presented to the public, I believe I have proven my case.”
In a hearing earlier this year, Kansas City Star attorney Bernie Rhodes said Denning sued the newspaper as a diversion.
“He can’t stand the heat,” Rhodes said.
Denning’s attorney Mike Kuckelman, now chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, said The Star misled the public.
“They don’t have unfettered license to lie,” Kuckelman said at the motion to dismiss hearing.
The 2016 Kansas Public Speech Protection Act affords stronger free speech protection than the First Amendment’s standard of actual malice, requiring evidence that the offending party acted with “specific intent to injure” or “with actual evil-mindedness.”
“With this decision, the judge affirmed that Senator Denning’s claim against The Star was entirely without merit, and more importantly, he protected the First Amendment rights of The Star and all journalists,” Nelson said in a statement.