“In this country, truth should still matter,” said an attorney for the Gibson family after an appeals court upheld a $44 million dollar judgement against Oberlin College.
The incident which occurred one fateful November day in 2016 in Oberlin, Ohio, will live in infamy as the day fortunes changed- perhaps forever- at Oberlin College.
What happened was common enough. An Oberlin college student was observed by an employee of a local bakery trying to buy wine from the store using a fake ID.
The employee tried to stop the youth, who tried to flee with alcohol, two other college students tried to intervene to prevent their friend from being apprehended, a scuffle ensued, no one was seriously hurt, the police were called and the students in question were charged with shoplifting, a relatively minor crime for which they eventually would plead guilty.
After that, things went decidedly south. A minor shoplifting incident which happens thousands of times every day in America became an incident which would eventually tear apart the college and the community around it.
Whatever the overarching, larger moral implications for society in this story- whether or not shoplifting is a serious crime, what efforts should be made to prevent those under 21 from obtaining alcoholic beverages, what obligation a store employee, who also happened to be the son of the current owner and grandson of the family business founder, had to interfere with a shoplifter, etc- this minor incident began a chain of events which explosively concluded last week with an appeals court upholding a lower court’s earlier ruling against Oberlin in favor of Bakery to the tune of $44 million dollars for defamation and damages.
After the shoplifting incident, it didn’t take long for word of the altercation and arrest to reach the Oberlin Campus. Immediately, students sprang into action to organize a campaign against Gibson’s Bakery.
Accused by scores of picketing students of racial profiling and a history of racism, Gibson’s Bakery did its best to defend against the accusations. The community rallied around the multi-generational family business which had been a cornerstone in the neighborhood for years.
It did little good. Even though some students acknowledged eventually that the accused shoplifters had in fact committed the misdeed in question, many still maintain that the incident was racially motivated and part of a pattern of racial animus demonstrated by Gibson’s Bakery.
The story, even considering the boycott and picketing of Gibson’s Bakery by Oberlin College students, would still have been a rather unremarkable local story but for one key fact: The role Oberlin College administrators played in the student protests against Gibson’s Bakery.
Eventually, Gibson’s Bakery sued the college for libel and damaging their reputation in the community. In June of 2019, a jury found in favor of Gibson’s Bakery and awarded a sum of $44 million dollars, later reduced to $25 million. Oberlin appealed the court’s decision.
Now, the ruling against Oberlin has been upheld by a higher court.
When a court of law determined that school officials acted in their professional capacity- as representatives of the university, rather than personally as citizens- the university had little chance.
Making flyers, organizing student protests, other actions intended to spread the word throughout the community as far and wide as possible that Gibson’s Bakery was anathema, not to be patronized: These actions undertaken by top-level university officials exposed the college to legal risk.
There is no question that the campaign hurt business for Gibson’s. There is also little question that the incident, its aftermath, the lawsuit, and even this landmark ruling against Oberlin for such a colossal sum, has torn apart the small college town to such a degree that it might taken decades to heal, if indeed it ever does.
Merchants in the town are more wary of students from the university; students, and school administrators, have refused to apologize or admit wrong-doing and resent the local community which rallied behind Gibson’s. Each side is dug-in on their relative position and an atmosphere of mistrust persists on the ground at Oberlin and its environs.
“The Gibsons hopefully now have a pathway and a window to survive because from their perspective the animosity of the college and the students continues and the business of the Gibsons has been severely compromised since the verdict,” said Lee Plakas, attorney for the Gibson family. “Hopefully this unanimous court of appeals decision will send a message to the college that it’s time to face the responsibility for their conduct.”
“Oberlin is obviously disappointed that the appeals court affirmed the judgement in its ruling,” Oberlin said via spokesperson Scott Wargo. “We are reviewing the Court’s opinion carefully as we evaluate our options and determine next steps. In the meantime, we recognize that the issues raised by this case have been challenging, not only for the parties involved in the lawsuit, but for the entire Oberlin community. We remain committed to strengthening the partnership between the College, the City of Oberlin and its residents, and the downtown business community. We will continue in that important work while remaining focused on our core educational mission.”
Other colleges and universities have likely been watching this case closely, easily able to imagine a scenario in which students might fall similarly afoul of locals. If future incidents like this occur, which they likely will, the university in question might look before leaping.
“This creates a very heavy incentive for institutions, particularly private institutions, to police the speech of their students and student governments, student organizations, student newspapers,” said Adam Steinbaugh, attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “Because the decision suggests that an institution not only can punish unprotected speech- which is not a controversial position- but that the institution must punish it or must censor it, or become liable for that speech if it is defamatory.”
College officials were probably acting in good faith when they took those steps to ruin a small, local business; after all, they believed the accusations against Gibson’s Bakery. If the business was guilty of racially profiling innocent students who hadn’t in fact been stealing wine from the store, Oberlin College, its student body and administrators would have been lauded by a culture that increasingly reveres grassroots actions to root out racism.
Instead, Gibson’s Bakery wasn’t guilty of racially profiling; merely of trying to stop a shoplifter. Oberlin officials, on the other hand, were found liable for defaming and financially damaging a business which before this incident enjoyed a very good reputation in the community.
Colleges like Oberlin may indeed have a responsibility to society to stand up for its students- whether they are victims of racism, sexism, or other forms of discrimination and bigotry.
But level-headed organizations like Oberlin have an even greater responsibility to determine the truth of matters before acting. In this responsibility, Oberlin failed. Worse, Oberlin’s actions hurt efforts to reform institutions and systems.
Next time college administrators are tempted to intervene in a case like this, they may easily think twice before supporting a student’s claims of discrimination and racial hostility.
Since these ills do exist in society, that is very unfortunate.
Oberlin, instead of covering itself in glory on the forefront of the racial justice movement has instead become a cautionary tale.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)