A Johnson County district judge has dismissed Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning's defamation lawsuit against the Kansas City Star, but both sides are claiming victory in a fight over the newspaper's credibility and the lawmaker's resistance to Medicaid expansion.

For Denning, a Republican from Overland Park, and his attorney, Kansas GOP chairman Mike Kuckelman, the lawsuit served as a platform to air grievances with the Star's opinion page and influence voters' thoughts about the reliability of the publication. Critics accuse Denning and Kuckelman of filing a frivolous lawsuit for political gain.

District Judge Paul Gurney's decision Tuesday reinforces protections afforded to news publications under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and strengthened by a 2016 state law endorsed by Denning. The judge ordered Denning to pay the Star's legal fees, estimated by the newspaper's attorney to be $40,000.

Kuckelman said he and Denning are discussing whether to file an appeal in the case.

Denning sued the Star following publication in January of an opinion column by Steve Rose, who wrote that Denning "finally confessed" his reasons for opposing Medicaid expansion, including resentment toward able-bodied, low-income Kansans seeking free medical care. Denning claimed the comments were fabricated.

When an aide to Denning pressed Rose about the authenticity of the column immediately after its publication, Rose offered to resign if Denning would "let it drop."

"The fake quotes left unchallenged would have improperly misled voters," Kuckelman said. "The lawsuit has exposed that the quotes attributed to Sen. Denning were fabricated. Some voters rely on the KC Star for news, and now voters should understand that the KC Star is not legally responsible for what appears in the newspaper."

To win a defamation case, Denning needed to prove the Star knowingly published false material with the intent to harm his reputation, a standard known as "actual malice" in legal terms.

Max Kautsch, an attorney who has represented The Topeka Capital-Journal, said the judge's ruling "reaffirms the high bar public figures must meet in order to win a defamation lawsuit."

"The First Amendment allows for criticism of public officials like Sen. Denning for their stance on matters of public policy, such as access to health care," Kautsch said.

Denning's defamation lawsuit against Rose remains unsettled, but Rose said the Star ruling gives him hope.

"The burden on Sen. Denning is to prove there was malice," Rose said. "Of course, there was none. We are looking forward to prevailing and to bringing this ridiculous lawsuit to its failed end."

Emails between Rose and the Star's opinion page editor, Colleen Nelson, show Rose initially attributed remarks in the column to an anonymous source, then provided Denning's name under deadline pressure.

After publication of the column, Nelson admonished Rose for failing to adhere to "the basic rules of journalism." If the senator didn't expect to have his name attached to comments made months ago, she said, Rose needed to clear it with Denning. The Star unpublished the column from its website.

Nelson said Denning's lawsuit was an attempt to generate headlines and the ruling affirms the complaint against the Star was "entirely without merit."

"Rose’s failure to disclose the timeline for his conversation with the senator did not meet the Star’s standards," Nelson said. "But based on Rose’s track record and Denning’s very public opposition to Medicaid expansion, we believe the reporting was accurate."

Denning said the lawsuit forced the Star to admit the Rose article didn't meet the newspaper's standards.

"With the evidence presented to the public, I believe I have proven my case," Denning said.

The legal action also amplified his resistance to passing Medicaid expansion this year, which invited a series of attention-getting protests to the Statehouse and could have ramifications for his 2020 re-election campaign. The Republican leader has won two terms as a senator after serving a term in the House, but Democrats bolstered their ranks in the district in last year's elections.

Rep. Cindy Holscher, a Democrat from Olathe, announced she will challenge Denning for the Senate seat next year. She called his lawsuit "a concerning attack on the freedom of the press."

“The Star is very reputable," Holscher said. "People in the Kansas City area and all over Kansas and Missouri count on the Star.”

She questioned whether the purpose of the lawsuit was to build recognition for Kuckelman within the Republican party, a claim also made by the Star's attorney in remarks reported by the Star and KCUR.

Kuckelman, who was elected party chairman three weeks after filing the lawsuit, said the accusation was "complete nonsense."

"I would challenge the KC Star to find a delegate that voted for me as chair because I was involved in this lawsuit," Kuckelman said.