Last week, Oberlin College was ordered to pay the owners of a small bakery near the college a combined $11.2 million in compensatory damages for defamation. Their response to the decision may cost them much, much more.
The Gibson family had owned and operated Gibson’s Bakery since 1885, The Daily Wire previously reported. On November 9, 2016, according to a lawsuit filed by the baker, three Oberlin students – Jonathan Aladin, Ccelia Whettstone, and Endia Lawrence – entered the store. Aladin attempted to purchase a bottle of wine with a fake ID. The owner, Allyn Gibson, refused. Gibson then noticed Aladin had two other bottles of win under his shirt and told the student he was calling the police. The Chronicle-Telegram reported that Aladin attempted to leave, so Gibson snapped a picture of him on his phone. Aladin then knocked the phone from Gibson’s hand and ran from the store, dropping the wine bottles. Gibson chased after Aladin to stop him, and the other two students began hitting the store owner as police arrived.
This encounter was deemed racist by the Oberlin community, even though Aladin said in a statement during his sentencing hearing that racism wasn’t a factor:
On November 9, 2016, I entered Gibson’s Market in Oberlin, Ohio, and attempted to purchase alcohol with a fake ID,” Aladin said in a written statement. “When the clerk recognized the fake ID, I struggled with the clerk to recover the fake ID. The clerk was within his legal rights to detain me, and I regret presenting a fake ID in an attempt to obtain alcohol. Thus unfortunate incident was triggered by my attempt to purchase alcohol. I believe the employees of Gibsons’ actions were not racially motivated. They were merely trying to prevent an underage sale.
Despite what happened, Gibson attempted to get the charges against Aladin dropped from a felony to a second-degree misdemeanor.
After the incident, Oberlin staff, including interim vice president and dean of students Meredith Raimondo, began attacking the bakery as racist and said the college would no longer purchase goods from the store. Protesters demonstrated in front of the bakery. Raimondo joined them. Flyers were passed out that said the bakery “is a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.”
The family, in their lawsuit, claimed Raimondo used a bullhorn to shout defamatory statements during the protests and that the college suspended classes so students could protest and provided those protesters with food and drinks.
After jurors awarded the Gibson’s $11.2 million in compensatory damages, Donica Thomas Varner, Oberlin’s vice president, general counsel and secretary for the college sent a community wide email criticizing the decision:
We are disappointed with the verdict and regret that the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented. Neither Oberlin College nor Dean Meredith Raimondo defamed a local business or its owners, and they never endorsed statements made by others. Rather, the College and Dr. Raimondo worked to ensure that students’ freedom of speech was protected and that the student demonstrations were safe and lawful, and they attempted to help the plaintiffs repair any harm caused by the student protests.
As we have stated, colleges cannot be held liable for the independent actions of their students. Institutions of higher education are obligated to protect freedom of speech on their campuses and respect their students’ decision to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights. Oberlin College acted in accordance with these obligations.
Over at Legal Insurrection, former attorney and current Cornell Law School professor William A. Jacobson wrote that Oberlin’s attack on the jurors could end up hurting them, as punitive damages have not been awarded:
Procedurally, the email is baffling because the trial is not over. The jury will hear more evidence and render a verdict on punitive damages that could add another $22 million to the $11 million compensatory. The objective of any communications at this sensitive stage must be to first do no harm. That’s how Scott Wargo, Oberlin’s spokesman, handled it when contacted by me and other media after the verdict, indicating the college had no comment on the jury verdict. Wargo’s statement was the professional response one would expect in this circumstance, so why are others at the college not heeding that basic corporate communications strategy?
Jacobson went on to write how “infuriating” the email sent to the Oberlin community was to those who followed the case. As he wrote, Oberlin and Raimondo were not, as the email claimed, “held liable for the independent actions of their students” – they were held accountable for their own actions and not those of Aladin or any student protesters.