Oberlin College is a small private, liberal arts college in rural Ohio. It is one of the more liberal colleges in Ohio and in the Midwest – located in one of the more liberal towns in Ohio and the Midwest. In 2016, Gibson’s Bakery, a small business in Oberlin, caught a student trying to shoplift two bottles of wine. Allyn Gibson, white, confronted a black student. Two of his companions then assaulted Mr. Gibson.
Oberlin students started to protest the 100 year old business. The Student senate passed a resolution saying the bakery had a history of racial profiling and discrimination. The students accused the Bakery of racial profiling. The college suspended a long held contract with the bakery. Gibson’s felt like they had been tried and found guilty of racism on the streets. In three years, the income of the business was cut in half.
Conservatives from outside the area flocked to the town to counter the student protests. The sidewalks were full of protestors, for and against.
And, in the midst of all this, the student and his two companions pleaded guilty to shoplifting that day at Gibson’s Bakery. They said they did not believe Gibson’s was discriminatory. Gibson’s laid off workers and stopped paying themselves due to decreased income.
Oberlin representatives appeared at the protests. The college says the Dean attended the protests to keep the students safe and the protests lawful. But, it looked like they were supporting the protests. The Bakery asked the college to issue a statement saying the bakery was not racist, but it refused.
Gibson’s Bakery sued the college for defamation. The trial judge kept the focus not on the protests, but on how actions by the college aided the protestors in various ways that harmed the income of the Bakery. The judge allowed a jury instruction that provide that if the jury finds Oberlin acted as a support group to the protestors, then they could be liable under Ohio law. There was some evidence that the school helped the students issue a flyer which called Gibson’s racist.
After a six week long trial, an Ohio jury found the college guilty of demafation. It awarded the Bakery 11.2 million in compensatory (i.e., emotional suffering) damages and punitive damages of $33.2 million. Ohio law has caps on punitive damages, so the amount will be reduced. See ABA Bar Journal news report here. Oberlin College will appeal. But, it is very difficult to overcome a jury verdict.
To award punitive damages, the jury had to find the college acted with “ill will” and malice. The college will also have to pay attorney’s fees for Gibson’s attorneys. In her closing statement, one of the attorneys for the college said the college had learned from the incident and would make changes to programs and admissions to make the school more respectful of local businesses. If true, this will become a very expensive lesson for a small liberal arts college.
In this day, when so many people see themselves as experts on racism, we should all pause. I wrote a post here about how we as a society have become so expert on racism that some of us even detected racism in Mary Poppins. Today, Joe Biden is criticized not because he supported segregation. He did not. Far from it. He simply said he worked with segregationists to get bills passed that benefited minorities. Yet, he too has been deemed by the “experts” to be racist. I just wish these so-called experts on a racism would end up on a jury in one of my cases.