Losing Our Defamation Case, and With It, Our Innocence

Losing Our Defamation Case, and With It, Our Innocence

“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy that justice can have.”—James Baldwin
“Justice cannot be for one side, but must be for both.”—Eleanor Roosevelt
I received the verdict of the Lakeland Times’ defamation suit against me on Friday as I was driving south to Madison, my adopted “home away from home,’ and it wasn’t good.
The jury awarded publisher Gregg Walker, whose newspapers continue to amplify Trump’s lies that undermine conservative voters’ faith in our elections and institutions, over $700K in damages.
You read that right, ~$700K. 
The average annual income of someone living in Oneida County is $36,898, meaning that statistically, this jury of 13 people awarded the equivalent of 20 years’ worth of wages to the biggest bully and one of the wealthiest men in the county.
In other words, I lost spectacularly. No jury would do something like this unless they were angry. They wanted to punish me, and this was their way to do it.
I’m still processing what happened, but the overwhelming feeling I had throughout last week’s trial was that of a caged animal being prodded and poked. The only thing I could do was parry, dodge, and weave—but I wasn’t allowed to fight back. 
I felt this because, from the very beginning, the judge in this case, Leon Stenz (please excuse me for not typing “his honor,” because my fingers might fall off in protest), did everything in his power to hamstring my defense. 
I’ve repeated this often in the last few years, but it bears repeating again…
Because the news media in this part of the state is largely OWNED by the plaintiff, Gregg Walker, thus ensuring that my side of the story won’t be told locally, the huge (and I would claim intentional) error in judgement which effected this entire case was that Judge Stenz refused to rule that Gregg Walker was a “Public Figure,” even though he publishes two papers throughout the county and even co-writes the paper’s editorials. 

Judge Stenz is from Forest County, one of the least populated in the state with ~8K people. 65% of the people in Forest County voted for Donald Trump, which was one of the most lopsided victories in the state. Cripes, even the local newspaper is called “The Forest Republican.” One would assume that given these demographics, if you want to win an election to become a judge, you most likely need the help of the local Republican Party, assuming that there are any other lawyers in the county that are able to run against you.
Our defense hinged entirely on the fact that Walker was a public figure.  We argued that since he owns and contributes to two newspapers that attack me regularly, I should be legally entitled to “fight back.” I did that by accusing him of being a number of things, among them a “misogynist” and a “crook,” because I found that the articles published in his paper were “misogynistic “and “crooked.”
Had the judge ruled that Walker was a public figure over two years ago, he would have been forced to dismiss this case. Instead, he allowed this lawsuit to move forward and I was forced into a jury trial comprised of people who live in a county where Trump won by almost 60% of the vote and where the only local newspaper one can buy is owned by the plaintiff who has collectively published a total of 68 hit pieces against me over the last three years.
The odds of me getting a favorable jury in this county weren’t good even if the judge had turned out to be fair.
Let’s just say that when I was on the witness stand, and I defended my claim that Walker was a “crook” because he repeatedly published lies that Trump won the presidential election in Wisconsin, I saw members of the jury look at me with anger in their eyes.
And what’s worse, when Judge Stenz dismissed my countersuit against Greg for publishing articles that called me “Baghdad Bangstad” and a “Jackbooted Liberal”--ostensibly likening me to global symbols of evil--his argument was that the paper had grounds to defame me because I WAS a “Public Figure.”
Imagine the incredulous looks on my team’s faces when the judge tried to rationalize that the publisher of the local paper was NOT a public figure but the owner of the local brewery WAS, while he legally tied our arms around our backs.
Apart from a seemingly partisan judge and jury, there was one more aspect of this trial that really hurt our defense.

Many of the people we asked to be witnesses in this case refused to help us, and I think the reason was because they knew that Gregg Walker, at least at the local level, has the ability to ruin reputations. He’s done that numerous times over the last few decades, which seemingly has had a chilling effect over most local progressives. 
Additionally, some of the witnesses we did try to call, not necessarily friends of mine but long-time community members that ultimately told me the stories that I used to write some of my more sharper missives against Walker, inexplicably testified “I don’t remember” when being asked under oath if they indeed told me the stories that I ultimately repeated in writing that were later added as additional defamation claims in this lawsuit.

It's hard to perjure yourself with the words "I don't remember," because who can legally tell you you're lying about your own memory?
It was like the whole town went silent when it came to any subject that might anger Gregg Walker.
This eerie quiet was unfortunately all-to-similar to the silence I got when I publicly asked the Minocqua business community to support my calls for fairness in awarding me the same parking exemptions the Town Board had given 11 other businesses to build outdoor spaces over the last two years while rejecting my request for a beer garden, and when I asked them to join me in renouncing the “selective enforcement” of zoning laws the County used to shut me down but hardly ever enforced among other businesses.

Crickets.  Silence.  The sounds of tumbleweed blowing through the streets. 

Indeed, my motto as the “least popular place in town,” which is written on my best-selling t-shirts and on banner hung from the north side of my building, isn’t wrong. To publicly side with the Minocqua Brewing Company is to invite the wrath of the Lakeland Times.
Now. There is a flipside to this, and I won’t avoid it even though its omission would help my narrative. I will take blame where blame is due. One of the claims that Walker had against me was plausible. I did let my emotions get the best of me in one piece of writing where I drew a line between some stories I heard from reliable sources that accused him of defrauding family members to a narrative that alleged he didn't help his brother in a fatal hunting accident out of some sort of Machiavellian ambition to take over the family business.  That was a pretty far reach on my part and I retracted that allegation when I heard direct evidence that it couldn’t be true.   
But I agree, even though I retracted that statement, I can see how a jury could still find this one particular story to be defamation.  At issue, however, is not whether I went too far in a public fight with a newspaper, but whether there should be any damages awarded to that paper's publisher when a) subscriptions to the Lakeland Times didn’t fall due to any of my accusations, and b) there was absolutely no evidence that my words caused any emotional harm to a guy who publishes outrageous things about people he doesn’t like on a regular basis.
We went into this case acknowledging we might lose on this one instance, but we were confident that legally, no damages would be awarded.
Instead, we lost on every single claim they brought, and the damages the jury awarded amounted to over $700K, even while Walker didn’t produce a single receipt for any mental health treatment he sought as a result of the “severe emotional harm” he “suffered" at my hand.
Yesterday, Fred Melms, one of the attorneys I’ve hired to get rid of Wisconsin’s parasitic voucher school system, called me up to ask me how I was feeling after being able to process this verdict for a day.
“Fred, I was taught to be proud of America’s and Wisconsin’s justice system, but after witnessing it first hand for an entire week, I can’t say I believe in it anymore. The bad guys won.”
“Kirk, this is why it’s called a judicial ‘system,’ because there are many more courts that exist exactly for this reason. What they get wrong at the county level can be appealed to higher courts where judges have more experience rectifying the things that go wrong in lower courts.”
That made me feel a lot better. 

We’re going to appeal to a higher court that's not located in a county where every jurist who wants to read the local paper will eventually come across, on average about twice a month, an article that attacks me.

We're going to appeal to a higher court where a jury is not allowed to exact anger on the one person with a megaphone loud enough to remind them that their cult leader is a liar, and that he indeed lost the presidential election in Wisconsin, fair and square.

We're going to appeal to a higher court where the results of that judge's decision doesn't affect whether or not the Republican Party supports him in his next election, nor whether the paper in the neighboring county takes its revenge by endorsing his opponent.

We're going to appeal to a higher court where justice is blind, like it's supposed to be...

..and I have to trust that Wisconsin’s Judicial System--it's appellate system in particular--will ultimately be “just” in this case.  I have to believe this because I still believe in America, Wisconsin, and our institutions.

And years ago, before Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox News, our institutions, because they were strong and trusted by our citizens, were the envy of the world.

I won't stop fighting until we get back to that time, and after what happened last week, I'll never overlook the importance of ensuring that there are qualified and impartial judges in every Wisconsin county. Nobody deserves to be subjected to the kangaroo court I saw last week, especially someone that doesn't have the means to fight back.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for sticking with the Minocqua Brewing Company.

Together, let's strive to make sure that the Wisconsin justice system works for everyone and not just for those with the most power and money, one beer at a time.

Kirk Bangstad
Owner, Minocqua Brewing Company
Founder, Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC

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