Nee Law Firm
OBERLIN COLLEGE APPEAL IN GIBSON’S BAKERY CASE, by Kevin Diehl
Updated: Aug 2, 2022
In May of 2020 I posted a blog recounting the story of Gibson’s Bakery in Oberlin,
Ohio. On November 9, 2016, Gibson’s gained national fame that it never sought when an underage male Oberlin College student was caught shoplifting a bottle of alcohol while in the store. You can read the full story here, but I’ll give a quick recap.
Allyn Gibson, the son of David Gibson – the man who owned the store at the time – was working that day and tried to stop the student. A scuffle ensued. When the police arrived they arrested the student and the two women with him. The story should’ve ended there – just a minor shoplifting offense in a college town. But because Allyn and the Gibsons are white, and the students are black, the incident became a racially charged powder keg.
Gibson’s Bakery had been a part of the Oberlin community since 1895; the town, the college and the bakery grew up together. Five generations of Gibsons had owned and operated the store. For more than a century the bakery honored a contract to supply doughnuts, pastries and other food to the college, and generations of students had frequented the bakery just across the street from the college. But all of that goodwill and harmony built over more than 130 years evaporated in a flash as rumors and innuendo circulated around campus. What’s the old line – a lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.
The students quickly concluded that Gibson’s was a racist establishment and that the arrests were a result of racial profiling. The fuse was lit.
In short order, hundreds of angry students lined West College Street chanting, “No justice, no peace,” from early morning until late into the night for several days. They called for a boycott and handed out flyers calling Gibson’s a “RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT OF RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.”
The Student Senate passed a resolution proclaiming that the “Students of Oberlin College immediately cease all support, financial and otherwise, of Gibson’s Food Market and Bakery.” That resolution was emailed to the student body and prominently posted in a college building where it remained on display for a year. The students also called for the college’s president, the dean of students, and other administrators and faculty to publicly condemn Gibson’s.
Of course, none of these allegations of racial profiling were true. Shoplifting – particularly by college students – had long been a problem for Gibson’s and the other establishments on West College Street. A police investigation into arrests at Gibson’s found a “complete lack of evidence of racism.” In a five-year period, 40 adults were arrested for shoplifting. Only six were black.
The adults running the college should have stepped in to quell the students’ petulant tantrum. But that didn’t happen. Rather, the college administration complied with the student demands and severed the century-long business relationship with Gibson’s. In addition, the college aided the students in their protests, and even let them use school resources to print their fallacious flyers.
About a week after the college cut the food services contract with Gibson’s, Oberlin demanded the bakery dismiss all criminal charges against the three students as “quid pro quo for resuming business.” The college also insisted that Gibson’s call Meredith Raimondo, the vice president and dean of students, whenever any student was caught stealing if it was the student’s first offense, rather than informing the police. David Gibson rejected the request, calling it “unworkable and unacceptable.”
This next part is key to the story. The three students who were arrested ultimately pleaded guilty to attempted theft and aggravated trespass. They acknowledged that Allyn had been within his rights to detain the shoplifter, and they said Allyn’s actions were not racially motivated.
Once again, it could’ve ended there, but it didn’t. The college continued to allege racial profiling. During campus tours the guides advised prospective students and their families not to shop at Gibson’s because it “is a racist establishment” that “assaults students.”
Over time, the boycott and protests had an impact. David Gibson had to layoff employees, and he stopped taking a paycheck just to keep the business open.
At one point, David Gibson had a meeting with the college officials and said he wouldn’t file a lawsuit if the college would just publicly issue a statement retracting the accusation of racism. David said the school didn’t even need to apologize, it just needed to say Gibson’s wasn’t racist. As he said, “We want to get our reputation back in this town.” But the college refused.
Finally, a year after the incident, and seeing no other way forward, Gibson’s filed a lawsuit against the college and the dean of students accusing them of, among other things, libel, defamation, infliction of emotional distress and intentional interference of business relationships
The lawsuit asked for $200,000 in damages. Remember that figure.
These sorts of disputes can often be resolved when the two sides negotiate in good faith. But Oberlin refused to settle and the case went to trial. When a jury got to hear the entire story, got to see internal emails and text messages, and got to hear testimony from everyone involved, it became quite clear that Oberlin’s administrators were well aware that Gibson’s was being wrongfully accused, but they refused to correct the situation.
One exchange during the trial, between Oberlin communication specialist Ferdinand Protzman and the Gibsons’ attorney, Lee Plakas, is illustrative of the mindset at the college. Plakas asked Protzman why the college cut ties with the bakery they had worked with for more than a century. Plakas had an idea what the answer might be, and he showed the jurors emails from college administrators that indicated school officials were afraid that the students might have thrown a “tantrum” if the college continued to do business with Gibson’s.
So Plakas asked Protzman, “The concern was that the students were angry? The fear was that angry students would throw food [made by Gibson’s] on the floor [of the cafeteria] and stomp on it?”
“Yes,” Protzman said, “that was one of the concerns.”
“Doesn’t that sound more like a nursery school than a college?” Plakas asked.
Protzman responded, “Nursery school students do throw food on the floor, yes.”
After a six-week trial, the jury – by an 8-0 vote – determined that Oberlin College libeled the Gibsons, inflicted intentional emotional distress and intentionally interfered with a business relationship. The jury returned a verdict for the Gibson’s in the staggering amount of 11 million dollars in compensatory damages, with a further 33 million in punitive damages. Recall that the Gibsons had asked for $200,000; the jury awarded them 44 million.
But Ohio law prohibits damages beyond 25 million, so a judge later reduced the award to the allowable amount, plus another 6 million in legal fees.
Of course, the saga didn’t end there, because Oberlin appealed the verdict. However, that didn’t go so well for the college. In April 2022, the court of appeals voted 3-0 to uphold the jury verdict and the 31 million dollar award.
In its appeal, Oberlin argued that this jury ruling would have a chilling effect on the rights to free speech on campuses across the country. Other colleges and media joined the chorus, claiming that institutions of higher learning, fearful of being sued for millions, would be forced to muzzle their students’ speech.
But the court of appeals made clear “that the sole focus of this appeal is on the separate conduct of Oberlin and [the dean of students] that allegedly caused damage to the Gibsons, not on the First Amendment rights of the individuals to voice opinions or protest.”
The court of appeals stated that when “this case went to trial, the student protests were not a subject of this defamation case, but merely provided a background for how other, potentially defamatory speech arose and was disseminated.”
Bill Jacobson, a Cornell Law Professor and founder of the Legal Insurrection Foundation – the only national group to cover the Gibson trial from start to finish – said that Oberlin College has “been completely unapologetic. They have been very aggressive towards this bakery. They continue to make their false accusations of racism against the bakery. They show no remorse whatsoever.”
According to Jacobson, the bakery’s business is down, and students, faculty and the administration still don’t shop there.
The court of appeals ruling has not put the matter to rest. Not yet. On May 13, 2022, Oberlin College and the dean of students filed an appeal in the Ohio Supreme Court. A few words on how that works.
The Ohio Supreme Court has discretion as to which appeals it hears. The Court only agrees to hear about 10 percent of the cases that get filed. In making that decision, the court considers whether a case raises substantial constitutional questions or is one of public and great general interest.
Does this appeal meet those criteria? We won’t know that until the Court makes its announcement. I won’t even try to predict what the seven justices will decide.
And so the Gibson family is put through yet another round of waiting for this nightmare to be over.
It may be tempting to say that the Gibsons have come out on top because, thus far, they have prevailed in court. But consider this: When this ordeal began, David Gibson was the owner and proprietor of his family’s bakery, he got to work with his son, Allyn D. Gibson, and he enjoyed a well-earned reputation in an idyllic college town. His father, Allyn W. Gibson – who was nearly 90 – lived nearby, was in relatively good health and sometimes helped out in the store. It was an enviable life.
Now, six years later, after a long, difficult legal battle, all of that has changed. Just after the trial ended, David revealed that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Oberlin College knew of the diagnosis before the trial began and filed a motion to keep that news from the jury. To his eternal credit, David agreed with that. He wanted the jury’s verdict to be based on the merits of the case and not on sympathy for his health.
He lived to see the verdict, but sadly, he passed away in November 2019.
Then, on February 12, 2022, just weeks before the court of appeals announced its decision, Allyn W. – Grandpa Gibson – passed away at age 93. At the trial, it was revealed that Allyn’s great fear was that, because of Oberlin’s character assassination, he would be remembered (falsely) as a racist. He need not have worried. The accusation of “racist” is tossed around now as lightly as a beach ball, and carries about as much weight. Anyone who takes the time to learn the facts knows that Grandpa Gibson was a good and decent gentleman, and most certainly not a racist.
May both he, and his son, rest in peace.