Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the Lakeland Times’ characterization of a local chamber of commerce.
By Rob Mentzer | Wisconsin Public Radio
The owner of a Northwoods brewery was found to have defamed the publisher of a Minocqua-based newspaper and fined $750,000 after he falsely implied that the publisher let his own brother die for his financial gain.
In a social media post from August 2021, Minocqua Brewing Company owner Kirk Bangstad wrote that Gregg Walker, part-owner of the Minocqua-based Lakeland Times, “allegedly stood by and did nothing while his brother accidentally fell from a tree stand and died” because he “allegedly knew he would inherit the once-legitimate Lakeland Times if his brother was out of the picture,” according to court documents.
At the time of that post, Walker had already filed suit against Bangstad over an earlier post that referred to Walker as a “crook.” Bangstad made the comments in a public message about that lawsuit.
According to court documents, Bangstad’s false claims stem from a 1987 hunting accident in which Walker’s 23-year-old brother fatally shot himself during a deer hunt. Walker was 17 at the time of the accident and was not present with his brother.
Court documents allege Bangstad further claimed Walker engaged in elder abuse against his father.
Bangstad’s attorney declined to discuss the case, saying litigation is continuing.
In a Facebook post Sunday discussing the verdict, Bangstad wrote that the judge in the case “did everything in his power to hamstring my defense.” Walker, Bangstad wrote, should have been considered a public figure due to his role as a newspaper publisher and that his defense “hinged entirely on the fact that Walker was a public figure.” The legal standard for defamation is higher for a public figure.
In a story Monday by Moore posted to the Lakeland Times website, Walker’s attorney, Matthew Fernholz, is quoted telling the jury that a verdict against Bangstad would “help put an end to online bullying and harassment.” Fernholz did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the case.
Bangstad and Minocqua Brewing Company have been the subject of rolling controversies in the tourist town over everything from signage to zoning to the Bangstad’s alignment with the Democratic Party. In addition to the brewery, Bangstad operates the linked Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC, which has purchased billboard ads attacking Republican politicians and which sells beers themed to Democrats including President Joe Biden and Gov. Tony Evers.
Bangstad has maintained the conservative county’s leaders are targeting him for his political views. In August, a county committee revoked the business’s permit over a yearslong dispute. It was later granted an extension and recently received approval to open a beer garden. In 2021, the super PAC was the subject of a complaint by a GOP official to the Federal Elections Commission that was later dismissed.
The defamation case began with Bangstad’s response to a June 2020 column by Lakeland Times reporter Richard Moore. The column, written and published early in the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighted criticism of the county health department by a lobbyist for the Tavern League over gathering restrictions. According to court documents, Bangstad in his post called Walker a “crook” and claimed he and Moore “probably think this virus is a hoax.”
The Lakeland Times responded by demanding a retraction of the statement saying Walker was a “crook.” Instead, Bangstad made further posts about the paper. In March 2021, he wrote that the paper had described a local chamber of commerce director using a slur against the mentally disabled.
Walker sued in May 2021. In January 2022, shortly before Walker’s attorneys would request a jury trial in the case, Bangstad wrote a post apologizing for his error and “recant(ing)” the statement.
In August 2022, as the defamation case was making its way through the court, Bangstad publicized the false allegations about Walker and his family in a post noting what he viewed as the absurdity of the case.
The seven-day trial concluded on Friday with a unanimous verdict. The defense may seek to challenge the finding with post-verdict motions, and if unsuccessful may appeal the jury’s decision to a higher court.
This month, Bangstad’s super PAC filed a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of Wisconsin’s school voucher program. In 2021, a super PAC lawsuit that sought to require masking in public schools was dismissed in federal court.