Lakeland Times publisher Gregg Walker, Walker Communications, and Lakeland Printing Company have filed a libel, defamation, and trade defamation lawsuit against Kirk Bangstad and Minocqua Brewing Company, Walker said this week.
Bangstad owns the Minocqua Brewing Company (MBC) and was the Democratic Party nominee for the 34th District Assembly seat last year. Attorney Matthew Fernholz of Cramer, Multhauf & Hammes, LLP, of Waukesha filed the lawsuit on behalf of Walker.
According to the complaint, on June 5, 2020, The Times published a news analysis entitled “Tavern League Lobbyist:  OC health department practicing ‘biological McCarthyism.’” At the time of the post, Bangstad was running for Wisconsin Assembly.
The next day, on June 6, the complaint continues, Bangstad posted a lengthy post on his campaign Facebook page criticizing the publication of the story by the Northwoods River News.
“In the course of the post, Bangstad referred to Walker as a ‘crook,’” the complaint states. “Bangstad later said that Walker ‘probably thinks this virus [Covid-19] is a hoax.’” 
Then, on June 10, 2020, Bangstad posted on The Times’s Facebook page that The Lakeland Times was not “a real paper,” was an “embarrassment to our town,” and was a “propaganda machine.” 
“Bangstad urged people to subscribe to the Vilas County News-Review,” the complaint states.
On June 12, 2020, the complaint continues, an attorney for Walker and the newspapers sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bangstad and to the MBC demanding that Bangstad retract his statements that Walker was a “crook” and that the River News is “not credible.”  
“As set forth in the letter, Walker has no criminal history and it is therefore libel per se to refer to him as a crook and imply that he has engaged in criminal conduct,” the complaint states. “Following receipt of the letter, Bangstad posted on his Facebook page on June 15, 2020, stating that he would not be retracting his statement that Walker was a ‘crook.’ Bangstad went on to refer to Walker as ‘the local misogynist who owns a paper that no one reads.’” 
Then, on June 18, 2020, according to the complaint, Bangstad posted once again on his Facebook page that Walker was a “misogynistic bully” and again referred to him as a “crook.” 
“On June 22, 2020, counsel for the plaintiffs sent a second cease-and-desist letter, this time to Bangstad’s attorney, Frederick Melms,” the complaint states. “The letter demanded a retraction of Bangstad’s reference to Walker as a ‘misogynistic bully,’ noting that the dictionary defines a misogynist as ‘a person who hates women.’”
Later, on March 26, 2021, The Times published an article noting that Bangstad’s campaign finance report failed to balance by more than $18,000. (That report has since been amended to balance.)
“The next day, March 27, 2021, Bangstad responded by writing a lengthy post on the Minocqua Brewing Facebook page,” the complaint states. “In the post, Bangstad once again referred to Walker as a ‘misogynist’ and also asserted that Walker and Lakeland Times had referred to the local Chamber of Commerce director … as ‘retarded.’ Bangstad and Minocqua Brewing’s Facebook post used quotation marks around ‘retarded,’ implying that this term was once used verbatim by Walker or Lakeland Times.”
But neither Walker nor Lakeland Times has ever once used the term “retarded” in any publication when referring to the chamber director or any other individual, the complaint asserts.
The complaint alleges that Bangstad’s Facebook post on June 6, 2020, referring to Walker as a “crook” constitutes a publication, as does Bangstad’s June 15, 2020, Facebook post referring to Walker as a “crook” and a “misogynist,” as well as his June 18, 2020, Facebook post referring to Walker as a “crook” and a “misogynistic bully.”
Finally, the complaint continued, the March 27, 2021, Facebook post wherein the defendants claimed that Walker and Lakeland Times referred to [the chamber director] as “retarded” also constitutes a publication.
“These Facebook posts contain demonstrably false allegations as Walker has no criminal history,” the complaint states. “In addition, none of the plaintiffs have published any material referring to [the chamber director] as ‘retarded.’ Defendants’ attempt to disparage the plaintiffs was done intentionally and within intent of harm to the plaintiffs’ reputation within the community.”
Likewise, the complaint continues, the defendants encouraged other people to stop subscribing to the Lakeland Times and the River News.
“Defendants’ statements were made with express malice and stemmed from ill will, bad intent, and malevolence towards the plaintiffs,” the complaint states. “If defendants continue spreading false, defamatory, libelous, and malicious information that is designed to harm the plaintiffs and their professional and business reputation, the plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm.”
Walker and the newspaper companies are seeking judgment for monetary damages in an amount to be determined at trial, an award of punitive damage, injunctive relief, attorneys fees, and all statutory costs.

Not the first time
Last October, The Lakeland Times demanded that the Minocqua Brewing Company remove from its Facebook page a post that republished an entire Times news article from earlier in the year, which The Times alleged violated its copyright protections.
In a letter to Frederick Melms, Bangstad’s attorney, Jennifer L. Gregor, an attorney with Godfrey & Kahn who was representing The Times, also asked that Bangstad refrain from future copyright violations.
Gregor referenced a Facebook post by MBC on October 20, 2020, specifically a post in which MBC copied and re-published the entirety of a June 5, 2020, article published in The Lakeland Times.
The article focused on a new county health department policy at the time of naming businesses visited by people who has tested positive for Covid-19 if the department concluded the visit posed a risk of significant exposure to others, as well as criticism of that policy by the Wisconsin Tavern League.
Copying the complete article was a violation of copyright law, Gregor wrote.
After the letter was sent to Bangstad, the company replaced the infringing post with a link to the same article, which took readers to a page where subscribers to the newspaper could access the content.
Times publisher Gregg Walker said the newspaper could not allow its intellectual property to be appropriated without consent, and he said that The Times would likewise defend its copyright protections in the future.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming “Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story” and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.