Judge Orders Bangstad to Immediately Pay $750K Defamation Fine

Judge Orders Bangstad to Immediately Pay $750K Defamation Fine

“Maybe we should pay Bangstad a salary of $15-$20 an hour so he can keep running his business, but set up a receivership that gives all of the Minocqua Brewing Company’s profits to Gregg Walker.”

This quote was paraphrased from Forest County’s Judge Leon Stenz as he refused a motion to stop the collection of the largest defamation award in Wisconsin’s history ($750K) by the publisher of Wisconsin’s most right-wing newspaper (The Lakeland Times) until an appeal has been heard.

On this Memorial Day Weekend, we’re supposed to be remembering American soldiers who gave their lives to defend our constitution, which includes a set of rights that we universally hold dear.
While I will do that for America, a democratic republic for which I have fought with every ounce of my being since the 2020 election, I will also weep for Northern Wisconsin, my beloved home where those same rights no longer mean what they used to.
I was shown last week that the rights our American soldiers gave their lives to protect--the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—are no longer protected in Northern Wisconsin. The right to free speech, which is the first and most important amendment to our constitution, at least in the eyes of Forest County Judge Leon Stenz, is less important than making sure that a progressive activist pays a steep price for his silver-tongued impertinence.
Here's the story:
Last Thursday was one of the most consequential hearings in my over three-year nightmare that started when I posted on Facebook that Gregg Walker, publisher of Minocqua’s Lakeland Times, was a “crook” and a “misogynist” after his paper berated Oneida County public health official Linda Conlon for doing her job and protecting people from Covid.
Walker ultimately sued me for defamation, and while I’ve written things about Gregg Walker that I believed to be true but later retracted when shown that I was wrong, I maintain that my criticism of Walker’s right-wing misinformation is, and will always be, legally protected speech.
Stenz’s original sin over three years ago was to rule that Gregg Walker was not a public figure--despite being the owner, publisher, editor, and investigative journalist for the Lakeland Times. In Thursday’s hearing, he refused to even acknowledge that Walker was a member of the media, and incorrectly ruled that the First Amendment doesn't protect criticism of the media in defamation cases.
He essentially ruled that the media's criticism is protected but my right to criticize the media isn't--which is insane.
This nightmare of a lawsuit should have ended with a dismissal from Judge Stenz over three years ago, but instead has resulted in the largest defamation decision in the history of our state (~$750K).
Now let’s move to Stenz’s ruling last Thursday that forces me to immediately start paying this enormous fine.
When Stenz ruled on our motion for a stay of judgment pending appeal, he REALLY misapplied the law on the standards used to decide these issues.
First, to receive a stay from a judgment that is solely for money, a defendant such as myself needs to demonstrate that there is more than a mere possibility of success on appeal. This is a very low burden. The Wisconsin Supreme Court instructed the circuit courts that they only need to find more than a “mere possibility” of success because it is very difficult to convince a judge that a higher court will overturn a number of their rulings.
Ergo, the burden is supposed to be low.
Judge Stenz did not accept that the burden was incredibly low, explaining that every ruling he made was in fact correct and would never be overturned by the appellate courts. 
Second, we needed to show that there would be no harm to Walker in delaying payment to him until we appealed the case. Walker is one of the largest land owners in Oneida County and never once went to see a therapist as a result of my sharp writing against him—thus no medical bills need to be paid. He can certainly wait until an appeals court renders their judgment before being paid a whopping $750K.
Third, Stenz refused to consider the fact that I had insurers who had refused to pay the judgment required by my contracts with each of them, even after we defeated their motion for summary judgment the day before. This makes no sense, especially when Walker's collection efforts could shut down my company.
If I had the liquid assets to pay the judgment, that would be one thing, but I don't.  My insurance company surely does.

Fourth, Stenz denied me immediate access to the appellate courts, choosing instead to tell attorney Fernholz that he could delay writing the order that is typically required to be filed and signed before I can seek review by the appellate courts. This suggests to me that he knows he’s wrong but wants to avoid the appellate courts overturning his decision after I win my motion to stay. Said another way, he wants to cripple me financially before an appellate court has a chance to weigh in on his crazy ruling.
So let me recap this story in a way that has less legal jargon.
Last Thursday, Judge Stenz--the only judge in a one of Wisconsin’s smallest counties; a judge who has very little experience in trying defamation cases--determined that among all of the complex issues that needed to be considered, it was of utmost importance that Gregg Walker, one of the wealthiest men in Oneida County, should be immediately paid three quarters of a million dollars before this case was heard by a higher court.
He also deemed that my paying that fine was MORE FAIR than making my insurance company pay for it—an insurance company with deep pockets that had already assumed responsibility for my legal defense—a defense that resulted in a historic loss and set a terrible legal precedent that private citizens can’t criticize members of the media.
As you can imagine, I was stunned when Judge Stenz rendered his decision last Thursday afternoon. All I could think about was that the words coming out of his mouth had everything to do with vengeance and little to do with the rule of law.

When I write that Stenz is using the politics of vengeance to guide his judicial decisions, I am reminded of a chilling Washington Post article from last November in which we learned of Trump’s plans if he indeed was elected to a second term.  It starts:

“Trump and his allies have begun mapping out specific plans for using the federal government to punish critics and opponents should he win a second term, with the former president naming individuals he wants to investigate or prosecute and his associates drafting plans to potentially invoke the Insurrection Act on his first day in office to allow him to deploy the military against civil demonstrations.”
The politics of vengeance started with Trump but has permeated throughout the entire Republican Party.
From federal Republicans impeaching Director of Homeland Security Mayorkas without a shred of evidence showing “high crimes and misdemeanors,” to state Republicans trying to remove Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Meaghan Wolf without a shred of evidence of election fraud in 2020, to the Langlade County Republican Party evading campaign finance laws to fund Robin Vos’ primary challenger at the behest of Trump--the politics of vengeance, bullying, and intimidation have overtaken the entire Republican party and also many conservative members of our judicial system.

Republicans have consistently told us not to worry about Trump/MAGA extremism, because the courts would hold them accountable. This was the excuse Republican senators used to vote against impeaching Trump after the January 6th insurrection.
Now we see Supreme Court Justices flying MAGA flags while blaming their wives all while ruling on Jan 6th cases. 
I’m doing my best to shine a light on what’s happening to me in Northern Wisconsin, which is part and parcel of what is happening within the the United States Supreme Court and in courts around the country. 
Simply put, our judicial system won’t save us. Not in Northern Wisconsin, nor in the highest court in the land. Politics is currently trumping equal justice under the law (pun intended), and OUR COUNTRY IS IN DANGER.
The ONLY solution is to win and win overwhelmingly next November.  A close election may very well doom our democracy, but an overwhelming win may just save it. 
We are in a death struggle for the future of our country. This should be the last election for both Trump and Biden - hopefully. People may not love our choices, but the choice couldn’t be clearer.
There’s nothing I can do at this point other than to depend on my lawyers to save my neck, but I can, yet again, shout at the top of my lungs that each and every reasonable Wisconsinite must join this fight NOW--not later. 

This is not a battle between progressives and conservatives, this is a battle between the rule of law and the politics of authoritarianism and vengeance. 
This battle has been fought and won before by Americans, both within our country and around the world, and those victories are the reason we are able to memorialize our fallen soldiers this weekend.

Their heroic torches have been passed to us to keep fighting for our country, and this upcoming election will be the most important fight for democracy that a large majority of Americans will experience in their lifetimes.

Thanks for reading.
Kirk Bangstad
Owner, Minocqua Brewing Company
Founder, Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC

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