Eliah Lovejoy, The Marian County Record, and the Minocqua Brewing Company:  Why We Must Protect Free Speech in the Rural Midwest

Eliah Lovejoy, The Marian County Record, and the Minocqua Brewing Company: Why We Must Protect Free Speech in the Rural Midwest

“The liberty of our forefathers has given us the liberty of speech, and it is our duty and high privilege to act and speak on all questions touching this great commonwealth.”
--Elijah Lovejoy, a reporter in Alton, Illinois in 1837, when asked by a committee of 5 citizens if he intended to print sentiments in his paper to which they objected. He was later murdered while trying to protect his printing press from being destroyed by an angry mob.
I read this quote after many of my customers sent me Heather Cox Richardson’s article from yesterday about an illegal raid on a newspaper in Marion, Kansas. What happened in Marion wasn’t entirely different from the events that led to my permit to conduct business being revoked two weeks ago--namely that local elected officials used their positions of power to unlawfully attack their opposition.
I suggest you read her entire article, but the gist of what happened in Marion was that a town official threw a reporter out of a meeting with a Republican Congressman; the newspaper ran a story about the event that the town official didn’t like; and that official was able to convince local law enforcement to illegally raid the paper under trumped-up charges of identity theft and unlawful computer acts, seemingly out of retribution.
What happened to my company was much less violent than a police raid, but the elements were similar. The Minocqua Town Board, particularly their chairman Mark Hartzheim, didn’t like my company’s progressive activism and conspired to hamstring my business by requiring commercial parking that wouldn’t allow me to build a beer garden, all-the-while giving  commercial parking exemptions to almost every other business that needed them to build similar outdoor spaces within the last 2 years.
What was illegal about that? 

  1. The Town doesn’t have the jurisdiction to require commercial parking because all parking is handled by the county zoning department.
  2. Chairman Hartzheim illegally directed county zoning officials to add restrictive elements to our permit, including a poisonous “revokable license agreement” that would give the town unlimited powers to shut us down under any circumstances.
  3. The town and county slow-walked three separate attempts by our business to build an outdoor space though the “conditional use” permitting process, knowing that those delays would hit us hardest during the busiest summer tourism months.
  4. The county, with constant harassment from Chairman Hartzheim and local right-wing newspaper publisher Gregg Walker (who by the way is suing me for defamation) selectively enforced “outdoor drinking” and “unenclosed dumpster” violations that they don’t enforce practically anywhere throughout the rest of the county.  What is worse is that the most “heinous” of these “violations,” outdoor drinking, was entirely innocuous in practice, and arguably legal given that I placed tables a few feet outside of our garage doors on our own concrete stoop and our state brewer’s license allows us to serve beer “on-premise.” Note that this “violation” would have been entirely legal had they not consistently, unfairly, and illegally rejected all of our attempts to build an outdoor space while allowing practically every other business the parking exemptions necessary to build outdoor spaces (~12 businesses in total) over the last two years.

So what happened?

After the county zoning committee (made up of 5 citizens like in the above 1837 Lovejoy quote) revoked my license, I hired attorney Fred Melms and we started the proceedings for a federal lawsuit against the Town of Minocqua and Oneida County. I sent you an email asking for donations so that I could afford what I believe will be a lengthy and costly legal action. To date, you’ve collectively donated over $100K, with donations averaging ~$40. This should be enough to finally be able to fight back.
We sent “FOIA,” aka “open records” requests, to the Town of Minocqua and Oneida County for all communications having to do with the Minocqua Brewing Company between town and county elected officials, almost certain that we’d find illegal “walking quorums” and deliberate attempts to hurt my business.

Shortly after sending those open records requests, the county reached out to discuss a compromise whereby they would let us build a beer garden as long as we agreed to build a few parking spots. This is exactly the type of compromise we’ve been requesting for over two years, but until we actually took the first steps in organizing a lawsuit, no one from the town or county would budge.
We still don’t know if the county will follow through on this compromise, but we’re hopeful.  If the county reaches a settlement with us, we won’t sue them in federal court, but we still plan to sue the Town of Minocqua and specifically the individuals in the town that conspired to hurt our business and successfully stopped us from selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of beer over the course of the last two summers.  These individuals include:
Mark Hartzheim, Town Chairman
Sue Heil, Supervisor and Owner of Booth Lake Landing Resort
Brian Fricke, Supervisor
Erika Peterson, Supervisor and Owner of Stoney Creek Home and Garden
Jon Thompson, Past Supervisor and Owner of John Thompson Construction

We hope this lawsuit and all the press coverage it gets finally convinces the people of Minocqua that their town board needs to be replaced.  Yes, the town of Minocqua is extremely conservative and we’re a progressive business, but this issue shouldn’t be about whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. 
This fight centers around the most American of issues: free speech and free enterprise. At the end of the day, anyone that familiarizes themselves with my company’s story as it relates to our tap room over the last few years will clearly see that the town set out to limit our speech by illegally regulating my company.
Hopefully this will be the last article I write about this ugly period in Northern Wisconsin, because these issues are a soul-sucking waste of time. 
What’s truly important to me, and what makes me jump out of bed every morning, is being able to creatively use my business as a vehicle to make Wisconsin more progressive. I want people to laugh and learn from my beer/wine/coffee labels while walking through grocery stores, and to contemplate progressive policy ideals while drinking that beer/wine/coffee with their friends.
And I want to continue to grow my Super PAC so that we can fight the dark money coming from America’s oligarchs with “good” money coming from the vast majority of us working together to reach common progressive policy goals at approximately $40 per donation.
The next policy goal I have is to get rid of the parasitic private school voucher system in Wisconsin. Our Harvard-trained DC lawyer is finalizing his strategic plan on how we will structure this case today, and I will share that plan, along with the team that will execute it and how much we need to raise to make it a reality, in my email next week.
Thanks for reading, thanks for caring, and thanks for sticking with us.
Together, we will make Wisconsin municipal government accountable again, and we will make Wisconsin public schools viable again, one beer at a time.
Kirk Bangstad
Owner, Minocqua Brewing Company
Founder, Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC

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