You may have heard about this: Gibson’s Bakery in Oberlin, Ohio recently won a 44 million dollar lawsuit against Oberlin College, the largest defamation verdict in Ohio history. At first blush it might sound like another story of a jury getting way out of hand. But there’s much more to the story that makes sense of the verdict.
Gibson’s Bakery has been part of Oberlin since 1895, when the family patriarch began selling baked goods to the townsfolk and the college students. It quickly became a beloved institution. A former president of the college, S. Frederick Starr, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal that his grandmother moved to Oberlin in the 1890s. Although Gibson’s was less than a decade old at the time, “its doughnuts were already famous. Grandma was still frying her own copy of them half a century later.” Today, the fifth generation of Gibsons owns and operates the bakery on West College Street.
For more than 130 years the town and the college and the bakery coexisted in general peace and prosperity. That is, up until November 9, 2016.
On that day, three underage Oberlin students, one man and two women, walked into Gibson’s and tried to buy alcohol. Allyn Gibson – the son and grandson of the owners – noticed that the young man, Jonathan Aladin, had two bottles hidden under his coat.
Shoplifting – particularly by students – has long been a problem for Gibson’s and many of the other local store owners. Allyn told the students he was calling the police. They started to leave, so Allyn pulled out his phone to take their picture. Jonathan slapped the phone out of Allyn’s hand, causing it to hit Allyn in the face.
The students ran from the store. Allyn gave chase and tackled Jonathan. By the time the police arrived, Allyn and Jonathan were scuffling on the ground and the two women were punching and kicking Allyn.
The students were arrested, and there the story might have ended – just another all-too-frequent shoplifting incident. Except that Allyn Gibson is white and the three students are black. And that was the spark that set the fire burning.
In the immediate aftermath, as rumors circulated through the campus grapevine, Oberlin students came to the conclusion that Gibson’s – the family bakery that had been peaceably serving doughnuts to the Oberlin community for more than a century – was a racist establishment and that the arrests were a result of racial profiling.
In short order, hundreds of students lined West College Street chanting, “No justice, no peace,” from early morning to late at 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 posted in a college building and remained posted 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.
None of theses allegations were true, of course. In fact, 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. But mere facts are powerless against delusional outrage.
The students also demanded that Oberlin break a longstanding food services contract with Gibson’s. The administration – rather than standing firm against the bogus claims – complied with the demands and severed a business relationship that had lasted for more than a century.
About a week after the college cut that contract, 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 (more on her later), when students were caught stealing the first time, rather than informing the police. Understandably, David Gibson – Allyn’s father and the current owner – rejected the request, calling it “unworkable and unacceptable.”
Ultimately, Jonathan and his two friends pleaded guilty to attempted theft and aggravated trespass. They acknowledged that Allyn was within his rights to detain the shoplifter. And they said Allyn’s actions were not racially motivated.
But that didn’t stop the college from continuing to allege racial profiling. In fact, during campus tours sponsored by the college, the guides advised prospective and future students and their families not to shop at Gibson’s because it is a “racist establishment” that “assaults students.”
Eventually, the college reinstated the catering contract with the bakery, but by then the damage was done. Gibson’s had always depended on students and the college for business. But the boycott and protests had an impact. David Gibson had to lay off employees, and he stopped taking a paycheck himself just to keep the business afloat. The family’s reputation had been wrongfully disgraced, and the college refused to apologize.
In November 2017, seeing no other recourse, Gibson’s filed a lawsuit against the college and Dean Raimondo, 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.
After the suit was filed, Oberlin College once again suspended business with Gibson’s. With the parties unable to reach a settlement, the case went to trial. As it turned out, that was a mistake for the college.
The jury heard a mountain of evidence that showed college officials actively supporting the students during the demonstrations. Oberlin argued that the school was not responsible for the views expressed by its students. But the school helped to promote the protests by using college funds to purchase food and gloves so the students could remain outside the store demonstrating in the cold weather. Oberlin also allowed the students to use college property and facilities to print the defamatory flyers.
Dean Raimondo was a visible and active participant at the demonstrations. The school maintained that she attended the protests to “ensure that students’ freedom of speech was protected and that the student demonstrations were safe and lawful.” But witnesses saw her using a bullhorn to orchestrate events during the protests. She also handed out some of the flyers, and purposefully blocked a newspaper photographer, telling him to stop taking pictures of the protesters.
The jury also saw internal emails and texts that demonstrated the administration was in favor of the boycott, helped it along, picked sides and acted against Gibson’s. For instance, after the three students pleaded guilty, an assistant dean explained in a text to Dean Raimondo that in a year the students could have their records expunged. After that year, she said, “I hope we rain fire and brimstone on that store.”
In another instance, Raimondo expressed outrage after a retired professor spoke out against the boycott. “F—k him,” she wrote in a text. “I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us.”
There was further evidence that showed Oberlin administrators were well aware that Gibson’s was being wrongfully accused. Having heard all this evidence, the jury determined, unanimously, that Oberlin libeled the Gibsons. And that’s how the eight Loraine County citizens on that jury determined that Gibson’s deserved 11 million dollars in compensatory damages, with a further 33 million in punitive damages (a judge has since reduced the punitive damages, in accordance with Ohio law, to 25 million.)
Oberlin College has tried to argue that this case will have a chilling effect on free speech, not just here but on campuses around the country. That is simply wrong. Free speech and the First Amendment were not on trial here. No one suggests that the students – no matter how ill-informed and off-the-mark their protests were – did not have a right to demonstrate. Rather, what was on trial was the college’s reckless conduct.
Oberlin wasn’t being held responsible for the speech of its students. Instead, the college itself was on trial for libeling the Gibsons. Libelous statements do not, and never have, enjoyed the protections of the First Amendment – and the Oberlin administrators who are lamenting the fate of free speech know this. If anything, we can hope that this verdict will have a chilling effect on other college administrations to keep them from acting as recklessly as Oberlin College administrators did.
This case isn’t over yet. The college has vowed to continue fighting, and there will be appeals. No one knows how long this might linger in the court system.
That’s too bad. Oberlin is a beautiful little town with a picturesque campus at its heart. It has long been one of the jewels of this state, and Gibson’s Bakery has been an integral part of that. But this ugly, shameful incident has left a stain on the college that may take years to remove, it has brought unwanted attention to the town, and it has caused unwarranted emotional damage to a good family who built a sterling reputation over five generations.
The town, and the family, deserve better than that.
ADDITIONAL NOTE: In the time between when I finished writing this blog and then posting it, David Gibson released a video that contained heart-wrenching news: he has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Oberlin College knew of the diagnosis before the trial and filed a motion to keep that news from the jury. To his everlasting 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. I have never met David Gibson nor been in his bakery, but I pray God will watch over him, and give strength and comfort to his fine family.