Hearne: Steve Penn Defamation Lawsuit Against KC Star Set to Errupt Monday

539179_102847506581799_1697507259_nThe legal bees in the 18th and Grand news hive have been buzzing for weeks….

That’s because axed Kansas City Star columnist Steve Penn‘s defamation lawsuit against the newspaper is set to go to trial on Monday. Penn, you may recall, was fired by the Star in July of 2011 for “using press release material verbatim without attributing the sources.”

One year later Penn file his lawsuit in Jackson County Circuit Court claiming the newspaper “damaged his reputation and future job and business prospects” by announcing his dismissal and suggesting he’d engaged in “professional misconduct.”

Penn’s lawsuit claims the Star was wrong and he had not engaged in professional misconduct because quoting from press releases without attribution was a common practice at the Star.

Well, the you-know-what appears ready to hit the fan.

Take the following email I received from a “Winston Smith” yesterday after several unsuccessful attempts to reach Penn by telephone:

KC Star editor Mike Fannin Mug Shot

KC Star editor Mike Fannin Mug Shot

The plagiarism trial begins Monday. The witness list is awesome. Jason Whitlock and Mike Fannin get to slug it out some more. Glen Rice will be on the stand to explain why he still works at The Star after he plagiarized music reviews.

Craig Nienaber will say that he knew nothing about nothing.

The trial comes down to this, will the jury decide Penn was defamed when The Star decided to fire him because he lifted words from press releases. Or will they say using words from a press release is not so bad but what Glen Rice did was really, really bad.

Penn survived a motion by The Star for summary judgement Nov. 4 and now court documents show Star attorneys have submitted what some might call “prior restraint” motions to try to stop witnesses from testifying just about anything regarding the Penn case and about The Star including its public financial reports.

It’s gonna be fun… 

Former Star sex machine jason Whitlock

Former Star sex machine jason Whitlock


At this stage of the game, in lieu of settling the case, a perusal of the legal filings by the Star’s high-powered lawyers at Lathrop & Gage would seem to indicate that big time bucks have already been spent by the newspaper in readying for battle with Penn. And based on my admittedly limited lawsuit experience, I’m going to toss out a guess that in excess of $50,000 has already been spent. I dropped 30 grand 20 years ago sparring with a record store owner and didn’t even get close to going to trial.

And basically, the newspaper has filed pleadings that attempt to deny virtually all of the witnesses Penn has suggested he may call upon. Were the Star to have been granted all its pre trial wishes, Penn would have been forced to walk into battle in the courtroom with little else besides himself and his lawyer for perhaps a 10 minute legal spanking before being sent on his way.

Among the names on Penn’s witness list are, Star editor Mike Fannin, managing editor Steve Shirk, metro desk editor Craig Nienaber, reporter Glenn Rice, angry former Star sports scribe Jason Whitlock, former newsroom editor Anne Spenner,  University of Missouri journalism prof emeritus Dan Ranly, former Public Relations Society of America CEO Gerry Corbett,  and everybody’s favorite local blogger and former Star editor Jimmy C. Fitzpatrick.

The $64 million question: which of the two combatants might blink before Monday’s trial and agree on an ultra quiet settlement.

While on one hand, the newspaper is doubtless loathe to admit or imply in any way that Penn’s lawsuit has any merit. That said, the last thing it wants to do is parade it’s editors past and present before a jury of Penn’s peers and risk airing its dirty laundry.

show-god-the-moneySo here’s what you can count on – as evidenced by Penn’s current reluctance to return calls ahead of Monday’s trial; whatever the settlement, however much money the newspaper may shell out to put Penn’s lawsuit behind it, count on the fact that it will attempt to seal Penn’s lips for all time. Including whether or not he was paid as much as one penny.

They’re way to haughty at 18th and Grand to want anyone to know they anted up.

Count on this too; no way will Penn go away at this stage of the game without a heaping helping of Star cash for him and his lawyers time and trouble.

The bottom line: Either the newspaper writes Penn a check or there’ll be a whole lotta shaking going on at the Jackson County Courthouse come Monday.

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14 Responses to Hearne: Steve Penn Defamation Lawsuit Against KC Star Set to Errupt Monday

  1. the dude says:

    C’mon Hearne, we all know this is all about a money grab for butthurt feelings over his getting canned. They roll over and throw some money at him but you will never hear the amount or that they did any wrong doing, I am sure that will be the contract writing.

    • admin says:

      Don’t disagree, dude.

      But what’s a little odd is that it’s gone this far without reaching an ($$$) accord.

  2. DSW-ESQ says:

    50 Gs- that was Polsinelli’s retainer- 300 G’s through trial is probably a conservative estimate

    • admin says:


      However there’s no indication that I can find that Penn’s witnesses are poised to show up Monday. Fitz didn’t even know he was on the list until I contacted him about it yesterday.

      Granted, he probably isn’t wildly important to Penn’s case.

  3. Andrew says:

    I’m a ghostwriter for a group of lobbying / PR firms and corporations. I write op-eds, letters, and blog posts, etc., that are later published under names other than mine. Less frequently, I write press releases for this job, which frequently are indeed printed in various papers and publications across the country, verbatim and mostly complete, without a mention that the content came from a press release. I don’t have firsthand knowledge of The Star doing this (I’ve had this job for several years, so I might have forgotten), but lots of newspapers do, including many in this region of the country. In fact, I was under the impression that it was an accepted practice pretty much everywhere. Maybe it’s more like a dirty little secret? But this does make me wonder if there was some other reason for Penn’s termination.

  4. CG says:

    Remember this can be settled on the “courtroom steps” happens all the time. Either side can put this off as well in court. That is likely. However knowing Steve, knowing the situation…THE MAN HAS A CASE….what he did was not outside the norm. He didn’t copy a story about something and pretend he wrote it as the charge implies, he simply reprinted ANNOUNCEMENTS of upcoming events and who would be there etc…its done all the time with ‘notice’…not a crime.

    I think this was done cause the Star, which is provable, was letting go all the reporters who made above 50 thousand a year that they could shake a stick at, including Steve and came up with this below the belt claim to simply SAVE MONEY. I think it was a low blow to Steve who was a loyal employee for a couple decades. It was the wrong thing to do and was done this way I think because he is of color and they didn’t want backlash from the community if they simply fired him for no reason other than..”we don’t want to pay him”…hello.

    I think Penn wins this case. I really do. However the Star will settle.

  5. fred says:

    It’s Don not Dan Ranly … or as he was affectionately known: Digitless Doctor Don.

  6. Mark says:

    I presume this is covered by the Star’s E&O insurance.

    • John Altevogt says:

      No. Errors and Ommissions comes in more in sales where you either provide erroneous information that people rely on to purchase something, or omit a material fact.

      Penn is arguing defamation, that they’re assholes who simply manufactured an excuse to get rid of a highly paid employee. There might be defamation insurance, particularly given that this is a newspaper (well, sort of), but I don’t think there’s insurance coverage for being an asshole.

  7. harley says:

    if it goes to court… penn could lose.
    juries hate these types of cases….
    I ask the lawyers on kcc…what damages can he prove…
    can he prove he got turned down for jobs because orf the stars action?
    I don’t know what he can prove.
    we’llsee if it goes to trial.
    star has billions of dollars…this is lunch money for them…..

  8. chuck says:

    I am going to guess, that the first demand from Penn’s lawyers were for one dollar for every article he wrote about Emmit Till. Guys at Polsinelli were jumping out the fu*kin windows and that is why it hasn’t been settled.

  9. John Altevogt says:

    I remember reading a story about Truman when they found some very critical comments about the Jews after WWII. What hit me was that I read about it in the Washington Post first and then later a story appeared in The Star. Identical in the two articles were a couple of interviews. They were done by the writers of the original Post story, but when they appeared verbatim in the Star piece it was made to appear that the Star writers had done the interviews. There was a comment at the bottom of the piece, but it was just a vague comment indicating that some information had come from The Post.

    That, it seems to me, is highly unethical and yet when I inquired I was told it was commonplace to do so.

  10. Lidsville says:

    why you make it sound like someone at The Star would actually respond to when you are merely at the top of the Super Crackpot List.

    • CG says:

      Don’t get this comment? Do you mean Hearne. If so he is not considered that, he is considered a thorn in their side. Big difference. Hearne is many things, but crazy or a ‘crackpot’ is not one of them. Guys a good reporter, has an edge and a point of view, true, but so do we all.

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