Two years ago, I wrote a column about a controversy involving Oberlin College and allegations of racism leveled against the family-owned Gibson’s Bakery. The bakery appears unfairly attacked for an incident involving African-American students — an incident that the college proceeded to address without any semblance of objectively or fairness toward the long-standing local bakery. I said that the time that the bakery had ample reason to sue. Well, now an Ohio jury has hit Oberlin College with crushing damages of an $11.2 million. What is most disturbing is the failure of any action taken against the college president and other officials who not only allowed these abuses to occur but then took a remarkably bad case to court at a loss in millions in damages and fees. The cost of poor judgment shown by college officials in this controversy is magnified by bad case law that it creates potentially for free speech. And the jury has not even convened yet to consider punitive damages.
As we discussed earlier, Gibson’s Bakery alleged in the complaint below that school officials encouraged a boycott over false accusations of racism after three Oberlin students were arrested at the business for shoplifting. What is curious is that the students pleaded guilty to the charges and the Oberlin police found no evidence of racism. Yet, the bakery is still be accused of racial profiling and running a “racist establishment.”
The controversy began in November 2016 when three black Oberlin students — Jonathan Aladin, Endia Lawrence and Cecelia Whettstone — were caught stealing wine. In August, the students admitted their guilt and also agreed that the store had not engaged in racist conduct in their arrest. Moreover, the students reportedly punched and kicked the shopkeeper. They initially claimed to have been racially profiled and that they only crime was using fake ids. However, Allyn Gibson said that he was attacked immediately after catching them with the stolen bottles of wine. The students ultimately dropped the claims and admitted that their guilt.
The police Incident Report online, adds disturbing details:
On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, at approximately 4:58pm, officers responded to the area of Gibson’s Bakery in reference to a report of a fight in progress. As officers were responding to the area, dispatch advised that this was involving an alleged theft complaint. Dispatch advised that Allyn Gibson, who is an employee of Gibson’s Bakery, was attempting to apprehend a subject who Allyn had witnessed attempt to steal several items. As officers approached the area, Sgt. Ortiz, and Officer Feuerstein both stated they observed Allyn Gibson lying on his back with several individuals kneeling over him punching and kicking him with several other individuals in the immediate area. Officers attempted to gain control of the situation and were met several times with resistance from several different individuals. After a few minutes officers were finally able to take one female into custody and calm the incident and attempt to figure out what had taken place.
Moreover, the Oberlin police conducted an investigation into arrests at Gibson’s and found “a complete lack of evidence of racism.” The police looked at arrested over a five-year period, and found 40 adults arrested for shoplifting but only six were African-American.
None of that seems to matter.
A boycott has been maintained against Gibson’s, which was the victim of a crime by Oberlin students. There is a great deal in the complaint below that is deeply troubling in terms of the conduct of Oberlin faculty and students.
The lawsuit filed against Oberlin and Meredith Raimondo, vice president and dean of students, for slander. The complaint details how school faculty encouraged demonstrations and supported the protests with suspended classes and resources. Raimondo allegedly appeared at the demonstrations with a bullhorn and distributed a flyer that said the bakery is a “RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.” The complaint also alleges that the school has warned visitors that Gibson’s is a racist establishment.
Notably, the complaint discusses the prior controversy over the firing of Joy Karega, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition, after she posted anti-Semitic statements. We discussed that controversy. The complaint suggests that Raimondo was brought in to reinforce the school’s relationship to black students after the firing of Karego, who is African American.
There is also an interesting discussion of how the school canceled its long-standing order with the bakery and, when the owner met with then-President Marvin Krislov and Tita Reed, assistant to the president of Oberlin College. He alleges that the officials pressured him to drop any criminal charges against the students.
The complaint alleges libel, slander, interference with business relationships, interference with contracts, deceptive trade practices, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent hiring and trespass and asks for more than $200,000 in damages.
Here is the complaint: Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College
Now the college must pay millions due to the reckless actions of both school officials and ultimately its counsel. Worse yet, the case could undermine free speech on campus. Much of the harm to the bakery was caused by massive protests at the college. Students and faculty seemed uninterested in the findings of the police or the views of the bakery. However, such protests are protected by free speech. The problem was the role of the college in fueling such protests. The complaint portrayed the university as an aider and abetter in such defamatory statements. This could create a serious threat to schools as vicariously liable for the exercise of free speech for its students — liability that could be used to justify no limited on free speech on campuses.
Donica Thomas Varner, the college’s vice president, general counsel and secretary, said the school would review the verdict. However, what she needs to address is the failure of the college to take responsibility for its earlier actions and then the ill-advised litigation of the case.