Attorneys for Oberlin College filed their principal brief June 5 appealing the judgment awarded to Gibson’s Bakery, which accused college officials of libel, slander and defamation over an incident in 2016.
Gibson’s won a landmark $44 million judgment, but the jury award was reduced as it fell outside the bounds of Ohio law. In June 2019, Lorain County Judge John Miraldi in a written ruling said David Gibson should receive $14 million in compensatory and punitive damages, his father and family patriarch Allyn D. Gibson $6.5 million, and their Oberlin business, Gibson’s Bakery, $4.5 million, The Associated Press reported.
The lawsuit, which named the college and Meredith Raimondo, vice president and dean of students, as defendants, stemmed from a Nov. 9, 2016, shoplifting incident and fight at the Oberlin bakery that involved three African American Oberlin College students and Allyn D. Gibson, a white store clerk. The incident sparked protests, which included disseminating fliers.
The college filed the brief in Ohio’s 9th District Court of Appeals in Lorain County.
In a news release from the college, it argues that numerous errors occurred during trial that prevented the jury from hearing key facts surrounding the November 2016 incident involving three students and a member of the Gibson family, and the student protests following that incident. Those significant errors deprived Oberlin of a fair trial.
“Oberlin requests that the judgment be reversed and entered in Oberlin’s favor based on well-established constitutional law protecting freedom of speech. The College also argues that it was wrongly held responsible for the opinions students expressed as part of their protests. As set forth in Oberlin’s brief, it cannot be held liable for failing to censor the speech of its students,” the news release read.
Oberlin said the trial court prevented the jury from hearing critical evidence on significant issues, resulting in a one-sided presentation of the evidence.
The college also said the trial court erred by allowing the jury to award punitive damages when well-established constitutional law required otherwise, by misapplying the Ohio damages caps, and by awarding attorney fees in violation of Ohio Supreme Court precedent.
“Oberlin pursued this appeal because it was deprived of a fair trial and to vindicate core constitutional protections for freedom of speech. Colleges and universities must allow students and faculty to speak freely – even when their speech is controversial, and even when administrators disagree with it – as an important part of the free exchange of ideas that is the heart of any academic institution.”
Additional court filings are expected during the next two months and the appeals court may hear oral arguments before issuing its ruling.