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In man-bites-dog moment, northern Wisconsin newspaper sues politician for libel
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In man-bites-dog moment, northern Wisconsin newspaper sues politician for libel

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Usually, it’s the politicians suing the news media for things the news media write about the politicians.

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In the case of the Lakeland Times versus former Democratic Assembly candidate Kirk Bangstad and his brewery, it’s the other way around. And there’s little sign the two sides will settle their differences over a beer any time soon.

The parent company of the Lakeland Times, a weekly newspaper with a conservative editorial position, and its owner Gregg Walker sued Bangstad for libel last month in Oneida County Circuit Court after Bangstad refused to take down Facebook posts last year in which he called Walker a “crook” and a “misogynist” and alleged the newspaper had called a local business official a derogatory name for a person with cognitive delays.

Aside from his failed bid in November to unseat incumbent Rep. Rob Swearingen, R-Rhinelander, Bangstad might be best known as the owner of Minocqua Brewing Co., which touts itself as the maker of “progressive beer” and has come up with beers saluting Democratic President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., and has a political action committee that has paid for billboards criticizing U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Minocqua, and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh.

Minocqua Brewing gives 5% of profits to its MBC Super PAC, which “aims to remove Republican federal and state elected officials who perpetuated the election lies that caused the Insurrection of January 6, 2021, and whose downplaying of the seriousness of COVID-19 caused so many unnecessary deaths in our country,” according to the brewery’s website.

Walker declined to go into detail about the suit, but said “everything that Kirk Bangstad has said about me and my newspapers we could never publish in our products legally.”

Bangstad said the suit is an attempt by a newspaper he considers unreliable and slanted toward the political right to silence an outspoken progressive, as well as siphon money away from liberal political advocacy in an area that’s long been a Republican stronghold. He said it’s ridiculous to compare what’s in a newspaper with what’s posted to social media.

“Newspapers exist solely because of the First Amendment. They are public figures. Gregg Walker is a public figure,” he said. “I give it back way more intelligently and with way more facts and truth than his reporters do.”

It’s not clear, though, that a court would see things the same way.

Key questions

The concept of libel doesn’t change based on whether an allegedly libelous statement is made on social media or in a more traditional form of media such as a newspaper, according to UW Law School professor Anuj Desai.

A “key question” a judge will need to address, he said, is whether Bangstad’s statements are to be considered fact or opinion, as “only false statements of fact constitute libel.”

While people say false and insulting things about other people and groups on Facebook all the time, attorney James Friedman, who sent cease-and-desist letters to Bangstad on Walker’s behalf, said “the fact that social media is ubiquitous doesn’t mean that people should go around libeling people.” He believes Walker has a strong case.

Bangstad’s statements could also be seen as so much bluster, Desai said, and their presence on social media might boost that view.

“Some statements might be viewed as factual in a newspaper but just hot air on” Facebook, he said.

Fact vs. opinion

When Bangstad called Walker a “crook,” “the question is, whether, in context, that reference would be understood by readers to be a factual claim that Walker actually committed a criminal offense,” he said. “As for ‘misogynist,’ my first instinct is that that would not be viewed as literally a factual claim and so would be treated as an ‘opinion.’ Terms of that sort are generally not treated as literal facts about someone.”

“I think he bullies women,” Bangstad said of Walker. “Do I really need to say he’s an alleged misogynist?”

Desai said Walker’s strongest claim might be that Bangstad falsely stated the newspaper used a derogatory term for the local business official in print several years ago. Walker denies that it did, and Bangstad told the Wisconsin State Journal he remembers the paper using the word but his memory could be mistaken.

The May 12 suit includes the 10-page summons and complaint and 42 pages of exhibits made up of a June 5, 2020, Lakeland Times “news analysis” critical of an Oneida County Health Department COVID-19 policy, a March 26 Lakeland Times story critical of Bangstad’s campaign finance reporting, Bangstad’s Facebook posts and two cease-and-desist letters from Friedman telling Bangstad to delete his posts.

Walker’s current attorney, Matthew Fernholz, did not respond to a request for comment. Bangstad’s attorney, Frederick Melms, who has not yet filed a response to the complaint, declined to comment.


Weekend re-reads: Check out these Wisconsin State Journal stories honored in state newspaper contest

The Wisconsin State Journal collected 10 first-place awards in an annual contest put on by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, including recognitions for general excellence, all-around photography and the opinion pages.

State Journal staff also won eight second-place finishes and 12 third-place honors in the association's Better Newspaper Contest, which evaluated content published between Sept. 1, 2019, and Aug. 31, 2020.

Photographer John Hart took home three individual first-place wins for the feature photo, artistic photo and photo essay categories, while photographer Amber Arnold earned first for a general news photo.

Emily Hamer was awarded the Rookie Reporter of the Year distinction and also won first place for extended coverage on the return of state pardons. Higher education reporter Kelly Meyerhofer earned first place in local education coverage.

Re-read the State Journal stories that won first, second and third place in this year's Better Newspaper Contest. 

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