The Minocqua Brewing Company is Counter-suing the Lakeland Times for Defamation

The Minocqua Brewing Company is Counter-suing the Lakeland Times for Defamation

In this week’s update, I’m going to pivot a bit from Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race in order return to an issue that’s deeply personal to me—being sued for defamation by the Lakeland Times, a right-wing newspaper in Northern Wisconsin, and its publisher, Gregg Walker.

In short, with your help, we just sued them back.

Here's the story (and and believe it or not--this personal lawsuit is more related to Wisconsin's upcoming and nationally-important Supreme Court election than you might think).

Last December, after being deposed by Walker’s lawyer Matt Fernholz of the Right-Wing Waukesha Law firm Cramer, Multhauf & Hammes, I became very angry. Fernholz asked me extremely personal questions completely un-related to this defamation lawsuit, in which I called Gregg Walker a "Crook" and a "Misogynist." Not only was he out of line, but the general manager of the Lakeland Times, Heather Holmes, was allowed to be present during this brazen political fishing expedition made while I was under oath and legally compelled to answer every question asked of me.

Matt Fernholz, Politically-conncted Lawyer for Right-Wing Waukesha Law firm Cramer, Multhauf & Hammes

Until then, this farce had luckily been reduced to a mere distraction because my attorneys had discovered late in the game that an old insurance policy would cover my legal expenses. But after I was forced to disclose personal details of my life in front of a rogue backwoods newspaper who probably licked their chops at the juicy details they could use against me in future hit pieces, I determined enough was enough.

I believe the judge we have in Forest County (population 9,258) erred in not dismissing this case outright over a year ago. Since he is still my judge, however, I’ve been cautioned to temper my words about his decision--the crux of which was that a jury, not him alone, should decide whether or not the publisher of a newspaper was a “public figure.”

This detail matters because public figures are held to a higher standard in defamation lawsuits for obvious reasons. They have large mouthpieces that can both set the record straight and go on the offensive in a public dispute.

I think most would agree that the publisher of a newspaper, who has the ability to say whatever he likes to a large swath of subscribers, is about as public as it gets in Northern Wisconsin, where "news deserts" are now the norm.

What I feel the judge also missed is that this suit was never intended to “set the record straight” or to "seek justice.” It was meant to cost the Minocqua Brewing Company money—a lot of money—so we would stop speaking out against a paper that regularly spewed dishonest bile such as calling for the FBI to be abolished and parroting Marjorie Taylor Greene’s call for red state secession.

By him not seeing this suit for what it was, our judge played right into Walker’s hands and allowed the judicial system to be used as a weapon of harassment.

This type of harassment is called a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation,” or “SLAPP.” Wisconsin is one of only 19 states that doesn’t have anti-SLAPP legislation, so it’s perfectly legal for the rich to bleed the less-rich into submission using our justice system.

Given that we can’t rely on Wisconsin’s laws to protect us from Gregg Walker and his Republican backers, and that in this purely partisan lawsuit we’ll need to rely on a jury comprised of people living in Forest County, where Donald Trump got 65% of the vote, I figured the only way out of this mess was to play offense and sue the Lakeland Times for all the defamatory things they’ve said about me and my company over the last few years.

It's basically what an animal does when it's backed into a corner...attack.

Yes, it is Walker’s first amendment right to print absolute nonsense if he wants, just like it was my absolute right to call him a “misogynist crook,” which were the words I used that hurt his feelings so much that he sued me. But if a judge in Forest County is going to allow an expensive lawsuit to proceed because I called Walker a "misogynist crook," then he MUST ALSO ALLOW a lawsuit to proceed in which the Lakeland times called me, among other things, “Bagdad Bangstad,” a “jackbooted liberal (Oct 9, 2020),” a “spewer” of “outright lies,” or a “cult leader” looking to “incite violence” against our town chairman (June 17, 2022).

Which names sound worse to you? Does it really matter? Of course not. They’re just names. Do those names, as unprofessional as it is for a newspaper to use them, offend me? Certainly not. Consider the source.

But until Wisconsin’s gerrymandered, do-nothing-legislature rejoins civilization by passing anti-SLAPP legislation, the only way I know how to stop a SLAPP suit is to use the same logic a judge used against me. Certainly the owner of a brewery is no more of a public figure than the publisher of a newspaper, and arguably these words used against me were just as inflammatory and reputation-harming.

This war of attrition helps no one but the lawyers, as most ego-driven, chest-thumping lawsuits do. But it will hopefully convince Gregg Walker that it’s easier to nurse a bruised ego when you’re not ALSO shelling out 6 figure legal fees.

So at the end of this long but (I hope) interesting story, I want to thank you.

Without the help of grass-roots donors pitching in $50 on average, I would not have been able to fight back. I feel lucky to have had a large enough mouthpiece to attract the attention of people who think what’s being done to my company in rural Wisconsin is wrong, but I realize this isn’t the case for most people.

Most of us, when the lawyer’s fees get too high, have to make a painful decision to give up because the price of fighting is higher than the price of throwing in the towel.

You’ve allowed me continue to fight, and I appreciate it, but until we pass anti-SLAPP legislation in Wisconsin, the term “Equal Justice Under Law,” which is a basic tenet of democracy and the words written on our US Supreme Court building, is simply untrue.

This is why I’ve invited legal historians and Anti-SLAPP experts to join me on the Up North Podcast this coming Wednesday, March 22 from 7-8 pm. I plan to make vignettes of these experts explaining how harmful these lawsuits are and broadcast them to Wisconsinites so they’ll understand that our state’s current judicial system is sick.

Of course our current gerrymandered Republican legislature won’t fix this, but a fair and balanced Wisconsin Supreme Court might.

I think showing people how hard it is for anyone who isn’t rich to get a fair shake in Wisconsin’s judicial system may encourage people to go to the polls on April 4th and vote for a progressive and fair Supreme Court justice.

So if you want to help me broadcast this podcast to much of Northern Wisconsin in the weeks leading up to the election, please donate here.

It’ll be a different take on the same story we’ve been telling since January—Wisconsin won’t get our democracy back or have a chance at achieving “Equal Justice Under Law” until we fix our courts.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for caring about the stability achieved through a civil society based on laws and democracy.

Together, we can bring civil society back to Wisconsin again, one beer at a time.

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

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