Progressive ‘Bernie Brew’ owner ordered to pay record $750,000 for defaming conservative publisher

Progressive ‘Bernie Brew’ owner ordered to pay record $750,000 for defaming conservative publisher


Daniel Bice
 USA TODAY NETWORK

A conservative Wisconsin newspaper publisher is no doubt hoisting a cold one to a local jury that has ordered a brewery-owning liberal activist to pay $750,000 in the state’s largest defamation judgment.

The previous record for a libel suit in Wisconsin was $450,000, said James Friedman, the attorney for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

On Friday, an Oneida County jury took only three hours — including a lunch break — to order Minocqua Brewing Co. owner Kirk Bangstad to pay $750,000 for defaming Lakeland Times publisher Gregg Walker in posts on the brewery’s popular social media outlets.

Among other things, the 13-member jury found Bangstad had smeared Walker by calling him a “crook” and a “misogynist.”

Bangstad, who operates a federal super PAC, also was found to have defamed Walker by claiming in a Facebook post that he had engaged in elder abuse and committed other crimes against family members so that he could inherit the newspaper business.

Under the jury verdict, Bangstad and his brewery are to pay $320,000 in compensatory damages, and Bangstad is to pay $430,000 in punitive damages out of his own pocket for his Facebook post about crimes against family members. The jury concluded Bangstad acted with “malice” with that Aug. 22, 2022, post.

Bangstad, who ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the Wisconsin Assembly in 2020, declined to discuss the case. The Lakeland Times’ editorial page is conservative.

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“I’ll talk to the Journal Sentinel, but I would prefer not to talk to you,” Bangstad told columnist Daniel Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network. Bangstad’s super PAC recently asked state Supreme Court’s new liberal majority to eliminate funding for the state’s four taxpayer-funded school voucher programs and independent charter schools.

Minocqua Brewing owner Bangstad vows to appeal verdict

On Facebook, he said he would appeal the jury verdicts.

“I have to trust that Wisconsin’s Judicial System — its appellate system in particular — will ultimately be ‘just’ in this case,” Bangstad wrote. “I have to believe this because I still believe in America, Wisconsin, and our institutions.”

“And years ago, before Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox News, our institutions, because they were strong and trusted by our citizens, were the envy of the world.”

On Friday, he put it more bluntly, attacking Oneida County Circuit Judge Leon Stenz: “The long and the short of it is this Oneida County judge had it in for us.”

Matthew Fernholz, the attorney for Walker, said he was pleased with the jury’s conclusions.

“We feel like it was a solid jury verdict,” Fernolz said. “It should be upheld.”

Friedman, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association lawyer, said at least two cases have logged $450,000 awards, the previous record for the state, including a 1992 case against the Milwaukee Sentinel and a more recent one over a book claiming the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting never happened.

“I’m quite certain there’s never been like a million-dollar verdict in Wisconsin in a defamation case,” said Friedman, an attorney at Godfrey & Kahn. “So I think this is the biggest one now.”

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What’s interesting about the case — in addition to the amount of the jury verdict — is the role of the newspaper in the case.

Usually, a paper is the target of a libel suit, not the one bringing it.

“I’m not recalling a newspaper or news outlets suing someone for defamation,” said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, an associate journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Nothing is leaping to my mind.”

Minocqua Brewing known for ‘Progressive Beer’ like ‘Bernie Brew’

Bangstad has drawn attention for his outspoken political stances, hanging a giant “Biden/Harris” sign outside the brewery and battling with local government bodies.

He started selling “Progressive Beer” with names like “Bernie Brew” and “Fair Maps” in 2020, and he launched the Minocqua Brewing Co. SuperPAC in 2021.

The PAC has funded a lawsuit against the Waukesha School District for removing COVID precautions and another alleging three Wisconsin Republicans conspired to keep Democrat Joe Biden from becoming president.

Walker and Lakeland Printing Co. brought the defamation case against Bangstad and Minocqua Brewing in May 2021 after Walker became a frequent target of Bangstad on his popular social media outlets, where he often posts about Wisconsin politics.

Minocqua Brewing has 82,000 followers on Facebook. Bangstad soon started raising money off the litigation.

In its verdict, the jury found Bangstad and his brewery owed $40,000 for calling Walker a “crook,” and $40,000 for calling him a “misogynist.” The jury said Walker deserved $200,000 in compensatory damages for the post about his family and $430,000 in punitive damages.

Contact Daniel Bice at [email protected], on X, formerly known as Twitter, @DanielBice, or on Facebook at fb.me/daniel.bice.

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