Hearne: Axed Star Columnist Steve Penn’s Lawsuit Alive, Kicking

stevepennThere’s a school of thought among some Kansas City Star reporters – past and present – that fired former columnist Steve Penn‘s lawsuit against the newspaper didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hades…

Penn got the ax a year and a half ago for including passages from press releases in his some of his columns.

But Penn didn’t just quietly get let go as is usually the case, the newspaper fired him, then burned him at the public stake.

That was then.

Former Star editor Jim Fitzpatrick told me last year he’d discussed Penn’s “case” with one of the Star‘s lead reporters and, “He was shaking his head,” Fitz said. “The way he was talking he didn’t expect the Star to settle” the lawsuit.

“If this goes to trial anything could come out and they would not let a guy go unless they had plenty of ammunition,” Fitzpatrick continued. “They would have just demoted him unless they had plenty of (dirt) on the guy. The last thing they’d want to do is fire a high profile black employee because their numbers on diversity hires are so poor.”

Turns out Penn’s naysayers were wrong though because his lawsuit is alive and well.

“It’s still going on,” Penn says. “The big development is the Star was trying to get it quashed – and it took about three months -but the judge finally ruled that the Star‘s argument didn’t have any merit.”

The latest?

“I got served some papers about a month ago and I answered their questions,” Penn says. “The Star was just trying to determine how strong my case was without deposing me. They probably just got my answers last week.”

mike-Fannin-smirk-shotThe $64 million question: Would the Star dare allow controversial editor Mike Fannin to take the witness stand?

In the meantime, Penn says he’s continuing to build his case.

“I was doing my due diligence and was trying to find an expert to support my argument and I contacted the Public Relations Society of America,” Penn says. “And I got a statement from a gentleman there that ultimately agreed with my case that nothing that I did amounted to plagiarism and the Star was barking up the wrong tree with that argument.

“He said that it is almost sort of a given with a press release that you can use it anyway you want,” Penn continues. “And to go to the step that the Star did to call that plagiarism was a bridge too far.”

When Penn looks back at his 31 years at the newspaper what does he reflect on?

“You know, I don’t,” he says. “I really don’t. I look towards the future.”

And his day in court.

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7 Responses to Hearne: Axed Star Columnist Steve Penn’s Lawsuit Alive, Kicking

  1. Jayson Blair says:

    I don’t think it is that big a deal Steve!

    Plus, I enjoyed the thousands of articles you wrote on Emmit Till!

    Don’t worry, I am enjoying my time away from “Journalism” on my horse ranch riding my new pony. His name is “One Trick”.

    Best wishes!

  2. CG says:

    Steve is a very nice person. I have known him for years. He was a member at Woodside, his daughter worked there and Steve was very well liked by al members and management.

    I don’t know all the particulars with this case. I do know the Star was firing anyone and everyone they could to save a buck and the paper. It does seem this was a bit over the top on their part. Steve was covering mostly upcoming events and political news from the urban core for the most part. So using a flier for information on when someone was coming to town or why seemed like not too big a deal. He didn’t copy a story from the New York Times and re write it or copy the damn thing.

    Whatever happened I think the Star was likely aware of how Steve did use some services to determine the who, what and where of events or speeches. Again not a big deal, so timing was odd.

    31 years with the paper seems to deserve a far better treatment in the end than this seemed to be. Unless the Star ‘investigators’ have more, seems it was not a good move on their part.

    I love the Kansas City Star, they have usually treated me and my family very well. We have nothing to complain about in that regard. Steve is just such a sweet guy out to hurt nobody it just seems they could have been much kinder at worst case. He lived, eat and breathed his post at the Star.

  3. smartman says:

    A barrister skilled in this type of litigation is gonna cost at least $500.00 an hour.You know that The Star and McClatchy are gonna bring the legal leviathan’s in on this deal. If this case goes South it’s not only bad for The Star but the whole dead tree industry as well. Talk about a “must win”.

    After getting papered to death and going through discovery and deposition(s) you could be looking at 60 LARGE if it actually goes to trial.

    Hopefully Penn has a bigger dagger than a statement from a dude at The Public Relations Society of America.

    This ain’t Judge Judy.

    • Orphan of the Road says:

      Living in a van, down by the river, I don’t have squat.

      Yet I found myself a defendant in an insider trading suit against LYO. Brought some two-years after they were bought out by a Russian and taken private. Every law suit of this kind had previously been dismissed.

      But this one trudges forward and I get to spend the money from picking up old cans on my yearly retainer.

      It is through-the-looking-glass now when you go to court.

    • admin says:

      You think the Star wants to spend anything approaching that kind of money and put editors like Mike Fannin on the stand when they could quietly settle it and nobody would know the better?

  4. balbonis moleskine says:


    He got fired for using PR releases without attribution in an article. If the head of the PR society says that they don’t care and encourage use without attribution then that helps his case.

    If I say you can use something I created in the public domain, does that make it plagarism? That’s a pretty good expert witness to say “No”.

    The Star will get another expert, most likely an editor for a major daily newspaper, who will testify that never ever ever will they use a PR piece without attribution.

    Penn would be useful to go to somebody like the people that run the KC Business Journal and ask for their opinion (I bet it follows his practice).

    Also instructive will be the KC Star elements of style (or whatever they call it) that they hold writers to. My guess is that it doesn’t directly address the issue or this would have been settled already.

    I think when you price this out, it would be cheaper for the Star to settle. But I have a feeling both sides are not in this one for the money.

  5. smartman says:

    Hey Balboni. I agree it will help his case but it sounds like that’s all he’s got….a statement. I’d be more impressed if he had multiple statements or multiple expert witnesses or multiple anythings. I’m sure the Star and parent McClatchy are taking this case very seriously.

    Anybody know who is representing Steve and what their track record is in cases like this? Does he have a fire breather on the clock or some schmuck working on a contingency basis who thinks there’s a huge payday in store.

    Doesn’t sound like there is any serious legal precedent supporting his claim(s) otherwise you’d think the Star would settle.

    I may be wrong but I think in the world of newsprint this is a pretty big case that will be closely watched and most likely not be settled in one round. If the work is on the clock the bill could easily wind up in six figures through trial and appeals.

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