The Court of Appeals for Ohio’s Ninth District has affirmed the jury verdict against Oberlin College and in favor of Gibson’s Bakery. That verdict requires Oberlin to pay Gibson’s $11 million in actual damages, $33 million in punitive damages and $6.5 million in attorneys’ fees.
The case began in 2017 when three black Oberlin students entered the Gibson’s food mart and bakery near campus. One of the students attempted to shoplift a bottle of wine and pay for another with false identification. When confronted by the clerk, the student fled the store, the clerk followed and a fracas occurred involving all three students and the clerk who sustained minor injuries. The police arrived and arrested the three students who later pleaded guilty to various offenses and admitted that the clerk’s actions had not been racially motivated.
Word of the incident leaked out quickly and Oberlin students concluded that the event, whose consequences they considered adverse to people of color, must have been caused by racism. Flyers were printed and distributed calling Gibson’s racist and saying that the 130-year-old family business had a long history of “racial profiling” of its customers. By the next day, between 200 and 300 students, Oberlin faculty and administrators, including Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, besieged Gibson’s.
Throughout the protests, Oberlin College, through its administrators and faculty, assisted and encouraged the students in their attacks on Gibson’s.
Soon, calls went out by the Student Senate to boycott Gibson’s and a statement to that effect was posted in a glass case in the Oberlin student center that also housed Raimondo’s office. The college, that had for years purchased baked goods from Gibson’s, stopped doing so at Raimondo’s order. Gibson’s owners attempted to get the college to stop the defamation and reinstitute the business relationship between he two. Oberlin refused.
Eventually, Gibson’s sued the college and Raimondo individually and, in 2019, the jury rendered its verdict. A unanimous Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court on all assignments of error by all parties. As of now, Oberlin owes Gibson’s and its attorneys about $50 million, not an insignificant sum for such a small institution.
Here are three lessons from the disgraceful affair:
First, and most importantly, American courts and laws remain decidedly un-woke. Interestingly, the defendants claimed that their defamation of Gibson’s was protected speech. (The woke seem to like the concept when it serves their purposes and loudly oppose it when it doesn’t.) Now, had they stopped with simply calling Gibson’s racist, it would have been the expression of an opinion and therefore constitutionally protected.
But where the college erred was in promoting the students’ claim that Gibson’s had a “LONG ACCOUNT OF RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.” (Emphasis in the original.) Had that been true, it would have constituted a defense to the libel claim, but it wasn’t. At trial, the defendants produced no evidence that Gibson’s had a history of profiling or discriminating on the basis of race.
Indeed, the students that produced the flyer and the college that adopted it did what we see so often: they assumed that, because their ideology considers all white people to be racists, the Gibson family must be. They therefore gave not a second thought to what they published in their flyer.
But courts and the law aren’t woke. They understand the harm that can come when libel, slander and defamation are given free rein. As much as we value free speech, there are types of speech that aren’t protected, like libel. Oberlin found that out the hard way.
Second, the woke continue to have not the slightest idea that their behavior is subject to the law. College students, being generally inexperienced about a lot of things, may get a pass on this, but they weren’t the ones found to be liable. Oberlin College and its Dean of Students were.
Supposedly, the college is run by adults and adults are supposed to think before they act. One thing they’re supposed to think about is the potential legal consequences of the actions they’re considering. But plainly, Oberlin administrators did no such thing. They actively encouraged the students in making claims that were obviously not protected speech but allegations of fact that could lead to civil liability. That of course is exactly what happened and the adults should have seen it coming.
Worse, when contacted by Gibson’s, that was clearly contemplating legal action against the school, Oberlin for over a year refused to take down the Student Senate’s statement and refused to resume business relations with the bakery, allowing monetary damages to continue rising.
That is not the behavior of responsible adults; it’s the behavior of woke ideologues who take it as an article of faith that the law doesn’t apply to them.
Third, the college administrators behaved as they did because they were terrified of the students. The evidence at trial was littered with gems like this:
[I]n a claimed effort to appease the angry students, Raimondo testified that she instructed a subordinate to contact the college’s supplier of food for its dining halls, Bon Appetit, and tell them to stop or halt supplying the college with food from the bakery.
The Gibsons also asked Oberlin to reach out to its students to explain that the Gibsons had been falsely accused of a history of racial profiling and of assaulting the student. Oberlin’s witnesses did not dispute that the Gibsons made that request or that it declined to comply with the Gibsons’ request because it did not want to further anger its students.
In short, Oberlin committed intentional and malicious torts resulting in an enormous jury verdict against the college in part because its administrators feared how the students might react if they didn’t and in part because they adopted their libel of an innocent family and its business that had long ago become a fixture in the town.
Don’t ask who the adults were in all this; there weren’t any.
Wokeness continues to run aground on the shoals of the law. May it continue.