A state jury has ordered Oberlin College to pay more than $11 million after finding in favor of a local bakery that charged the college and its students interfered with business relationships, inflicted emotional distress and libeled the owners.
Gibson's Bakery sued Oberlin and its dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, who was also found to have libeled Gibson's in the jury's Friday afternoon verdict, after an altercation between one of Gibson's owners and an Oberlin student led to a years-long divide between the college and the bakery.
The lawsuit was filed in November 2017, a year after the incidents that led to the lawsuit. In November 2016, three black Oberlin students were suspected of stealing from Gibson’s Bakery by Allyn Gibson, who chased down the students onto college property (across the street from the bakery).
The three students were arrested and later pleaded guilty to charges of attempted theft and aggravated trespassing, and each signed an statement saying the incident wasn't based on race.
However, by the day after the incident -- and before the students admitted that they had been trying to rob the bakery -- students had organized a protest in which more than 100 people demonstrated outside the bakery. Students carried signs accusing the bakery owners of white supremacy or simply saying "Fuck Gibson's." Protesters chanted "Gibson's is racist" and handed out pamphlets urging customers not to buy from the bakery and accused the bakery of a history of racism.
Court documents show the university placed a hold on business done with the bakery for a period. The lawsuit alleges Oberlin administrators encouraged students to protest the store and helped organize the demonstration. Raimondo was accused in the suit of helping orchestrate student fervor against Gibson’s, such as by informing law enforcement in advance of the protest on behalf of the demonstrators. The university says any assistance given to demonstrators was simply Oberlin ensuring student safety during a legal protest.
Gibson's maintains that it is not racist, and reacted to shoplifting in the incident in the same way it would have responded had the students been white. But court documents indicate that the student government, for which Raimondo was the adviser, passed a resolution stating Gibson’s was racist. Raimondo also approved the use of university funds to be used to buy gloves for individuals taking part in the protest. Several Oberlin faculty members took part in the protest as well.
In its motion for summary judgment, Oberlin says Gibson’s is “through expensive and lengthy litigation” trying to hold the college liable for “the independent peaceful exercise of federal First Amendment rights by the institution's students and its employees.” Oberlin lawyers cited precedents that colleges can’t be held liable for the independent actions of students or employees.
The Chronicle Telegram, the local paper in Oberlin, Ohio, reported that in the trial’s closing statements, Gibson’s lawyer, Lee Plakas, said the jury’s verdict will have an impact on colleges’ conduct around the country.
“I’ve been told that this case and your verdict will be a tipping point to determine how institutions, and especially institutions of higher learning, affect all of us,” Plakas said. “Every year they send out a class of students to come into our world and interact with us. The training they are given and the examples that have been set by the college affect our entire country.”
Conservative news outlets, especially the website Legal Insurrection, have pointed to the case as an example of a liberal higher education institution going head to head with an everyday person. The website has described the trial as "putting social justice warfare on trial."
Now ordered to pay over $11 million total to the plaintiffs in the case, Oberlin sent an email to members of the college's alumni association obtained by The Chronicle Telegram. In the email, Donica Thomas Varner, vice president, general counsel and secretary of Oberlin College, said the college will determine how to move forward.
“We are disappointed with the verdict and regret that the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented,” Varner wrote. “Neither Oberlin College nor Dean Meredith Raimondo defamed a local business or its owners, and they never endorsed statements made by others. Rather, the college and Dr. Raimondo worked to ensure that students’ freedom of speech was protected and that the student demonstrations were safe and lawful, and they attempted to help the plaintiffs repair any harm caused by the student protests.”
The jury may award more money to Gibson's Tuesday when the case turns to punitive damages. The $11 million was $2 million less than the damages Plakas asked the jury to award to Gibson's.