After a week-long trial, an Oneida County jury has found Kirk Bangstad and his Minocqua Brewing Company committed multiple counts of defamation against Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News publisher Gregg Walker, awarding Walker one of the largest defamation awards in state history —$750,000, including $430,000 in punitive damages.
The verdict was decided unanimously by 13 jurors. Afterwards, Judge Leon Stenz granted a jury request to have their names and addresses sealed, after jurors expressed their desire not to have Bangstad know their identities and locations.
“What happens if you don’t hold Mr. Bangstad accountable today? What will he do next? What malicious lie would he begin spreading after today? Ladies and gentlemen, you have a chance to do something very important today, which should help put an end to online bullying and harassment. You can do that by sending a message.”
In one instance, the jury found that Bangstad defamed Walker in a Minocqua Brewing Company (MBC) Facebook post in which Bangstad falsely alleged that Walker contributed to Walker’s brother’s death in a hunting accident 36 years ago so that he could inherit the newspaper. The jury awarded Walker $200,000 in compensation for the false post.
Also part of that post, which Bangstad had not taken down as of the trial, was Bangstad’s false accusation that Walker abused his elderly father for his own financial benefit and kept his father’s second wife away from him. Again, the jury found the statement false and defamatory.
In addition, the jury determined that, in making that August 8, 2022, post, Bangstad acted with express malice, and awarded $430,000 in punitive damages.
The jury ruled unanimously on the other defamation counts as well. They found that, on multiple occasions, Bangstad falsely posted on Facebook that Walker was a “crook” and a “misogynist,” defamatory statements for which the jury awarded Walker $40,000 for each of the claims.
Likewise, the jury awarded Walker $40,000 for Bangstad’s false assertion that The Times had published an editorial that used an egregious slur to describe Minocqua Chamber of Commerce executive director Krystal Westfahl.
In closing statements Friday, Walker’s attorney, Matthew Fernholz, said the evidence presented at trial showed that the case was not about a rancorous political dispute between Walker and Bangstad, as the defense had tried to portray it, but about personal attacks upon Walker and his family that maliciously used false statements to undermine Walker’s standing in the community and that caused emotional distress by opening wounds from a decades-old tragedy.
Fernholz told the jury that the case was even more important than that.
“This is a defamation case, but it is really more than just a defamation case,” Fernholz told the jury. “It is really one of the most important trials in the state of Wisconsin and possibly even in the country. … Social media has been wonderful in many respects. It’s helped a lot of people stay in touch, but unfortunately it has corroded the way that we speak to one another. It seems that every year, every month a new line is crossed and what used to be unacceptable behavior and comments are now acceptable.”
The jury now had a chance to do something about that, Fernholz told the jurors.
“You can send a message to Kirk Bangstad and to all the other people who use social media to bully and harass decent people that there are consequences to such behavior,” he said. “… It was necessary for me to [go through all those Facebook posts] to give you an idea of the level of abuse that Kirk Bangstad directed at my client Gregg Walker.”
Fernholz said he also needed the show the jury the wide reach Bangstad has on social media.
“This is not simply a regular user of Facebook who has a couple family members or a couple friends,” he said. “This is a man with 82,000 followers on his Minocqua Brewing Company Facebook page. Those people take the postings and they repost them.”
Jury rejects defense reasoning
In his closing, Bangstad’s attorney, Timothy Johnson, acknowledged that many of the things Bangstad wrote were inexcusable, but he argued they fell short of defamation.
“Some of these statements are terrible, some of these statements are wrong,” Johnson said. “Some of these statements are uncivil, I get it. But this is a defamation case and the elements of the defamation require proofs on each part of the claim in order for you to find that an award is justified.”
For one thing, Johnson argued that assertions that Walker was a “crook” and a “misogynist” were political opinions, not allegations of fact. For example, Bangstad maintained that his definition of “crook” was that of a dishonest person, not an allegation that Walker was a criminal, and that, as publisher, Walker had allowed the publication of misinformation in the newspaper.
“Those were opinions held by Mr. Bangstad, right or wrong, those were opinions,” Johnson said.
Johnson said it was important to remember the context, and the context was one of public controversy and responding to various editorials had written about Bangstad.
“Getting back to the context that’s required to be considered, I don’t think it can be reasonably disputed — as we walked through those articles and those publications over the last few years — that Mr. Bangstad believed that this was a public political feud,” he said.
But Fernholz reminded jurors that Bangstad had himself testified that, after receiving an email expressing an opinion that Walker was a criminal, Bangstad thereafter said he intended his use of the word to mean both dishonest and criminal.
“And he said, ‘well that [email] just confirmed to me that he was a criminal and would do criminal things and that he was a crook,’” Fernholz told the jurors. “He never met this woman, never heard of her, never spoken with her, never followed up on the email. Mr. Bangstad says, ‘I have this email. Now I know he’s a crook’ and Mr. Bangstad testified that every time he used that word after the date of that email, he meant to imply Gregg Walker was a criminal.”
What’s more, Fernholz said the allegations about Walker’s brother had nothing to do with politics or any public controversy.
“Now Johnson kept going back to context, context, context,” he told the jurors. “Consider the context, that’s true. … But what’s the context of accusing a man who was in high school contributing to his brother’s death? What’s the political context behind that?”
Johnson also argued in his closing statement, as he did throughout the trial, that Walker had not shown that his reputation had been harmed, which Johnson characterized as an essential element of legal defamation.
Fernholz argued that that was not the actual standard.
“Of course the things that have been said about Mr. Walker are harmful to his reputation,” he said. “He’s not required to go track down all 80,000 followers of Mr. Bangstad and whomever else they shared it with and interview them and swear under oath that it’s not true.”
The defendants are arguing that because Walker still says he has a sterling reputation, there is no defamation, but that reasoning doesn’t make sense, Fernholz asserted.
“Now isn’t this just a great way to get around defamation?” he asked. “If you’re a good and decent man and you build up your reputation over a lifetime, you can say whatever you want about that person because he’s still likely to have a good reputation. People still want to associate with him, even though the harm is out there and determining who knows about these statements is virtually impossible. What Mr. Bangstad and his counsel are arguing is that, because he’s a great man and has a good reputation, it’s okay and he is going to be fine.”
Wisconsin statutes actually include three elements of defamation. Besides being false and published, it is defamatory when the communication “tends to harm one’s reputation so as to lower the person in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with the person,” that is, actual proof of harm is not required, only that such a statement would tend to do so.
As for the claim about contributing to his brother Brad’s death, Fernholz said the allegation was “absolutely horrific.”
“Mr. Bangstad makes an absolutely horrific allegation against Mr. Walker somehow contributing to the death of his brother Brad that by Mr. Bangstad’s own admission is a false statement,” he said. “It was a vicious flat out disgusting lie.”
Bangstad had maintained that the source of his information was from a witness who at the trial had contradicted that that was what he told Bangstad, Fernholz reminded the jurors.
“Who could have imagined that in 1987 when this community was hit with the tragic death of Brad Walker, that in the year 2023 you would be sitting in a courtroom having to prove that Gregg Walker did not contribute to his brother’s death or that Brad’s mother at the age of 83 was going to have to sit on that witness stand and testify under oath about the facts of her own son’s death …, but that is yet another side effect of Mr. Bangstad’s revolting behavior.”
The jury could yet serve justice, Fernholz told the jurors.
“Gregg Walker said it best, that his brother Brad deserves to rest in peace, but now, because of Mr. Bangstad’s vicious intent, Brad Walker’s death is going to be forever linked to this trial,” he said. “Don’t let Mr. Bangstad have the last say on Brad Walker’s legacy.”
Fernholz said the defense wanted the case to be about the politics as way to distract the jury and not about actual evidence showing defamation, but he said the consequences of doing so would be too great.
“Consider this too,” he said. “What happens if you don’t hold Mr. Bangstad accountable today? What will he do next? What malicious lie would he begin spreading after today? Ladies and gentlemen, you have a chance to do something very important today, which should help put an end to online bullying and harassment. You can do that by sending a message.”
During the trial, Bangstad repeatedly ran afoul of the judge’s instructions to him, leading to a contempt of court citation and $250 fine. Following Bangstad’s taunting of a Times reporter and of Walker, the judge ordered him not to speak with anyone other than his attorney during the trial. Bangstad violated this order later in the day during a sidebar, when he began speaking to a staff member of Fernholz’s law firm, and also making comments about Walker, Fernholz, and the merits of the case. After Bangstad posted about the trial on the MBC Facebook page during the trial, the judge imposed a gag order preventing him from further social media posts.
Richard Moore is the author of “Dark State” and may be reached at richardd3d.substack.com.