Oberlin College is weighing its options after a jury awarded combined damages of $44 million to Gibson’s Bakery in a libel and slander lawsuit.
“We’ll need to wait for that process to complete,” said Carmen Twillie Ambar, the college’s president, in a June 24 conference call with local media. “Then the institution will have to consider the legal options.”
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 flyers.
Ambar said the bakery owners sought $15 million to $20 million after initially seeking $30 million. The college made a $5 million offer the day of closing statements.
However, Lee Plakas, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, said he did not see that offer, which came by email, until after it had expired.
Ambar said the conflict created some “fissures” and “fault lines” between the college and the community. She released a letter and an FAQ list on June 19, a week after a Lorain County jury awarded the owners of the bakery $11 million in compensatory damages and $33 million in punitive damages. The punitive damages awarded exceed the cap by Ohio law and are likely to be reduced.
Ambar characterized the case as hinging on the First Amendment.
“It really is fundamentally about free speech,” she said of the case, adding that holding a college liable for the protests of its students will have a “profound, chilling effect on free speech.”
“It would require colleges and universities to censor people who are connected to it,” she said. “It would put a burden on institutions that would be unsustainable.”
While other legal scholars have used similar language when describing the case, Plakas, managing partner of Tzangas, Plakas, Mannos, Ltd. in Akron, disagreed with that characterization.
“To suggest that this is a free speech case would be tantamount to suggesting that a person who indiscriminately shoots into a crowd of people should have the shield of the Second Amendment,” he said. “Every right we have comes with significant responsibilities. And if you abuse those rights, there’s consequences. You cannot use the First Amendment as a shield to avoid the consequences of libel.”
The complaint states that Raimondo and other Oberlin College representatives “handed out hundreds of copies of the flyer to Oberlin College faculty, staff and students, the Oberlin community and media representatives stating that Gibson’s Bakery and its owners racially profiled (the students).”
Raimondo and other faculty, including Tita Reed, assistant to the president of Oberlin, “raised their fists in support of the demonstration, while shouting defamatory statements on a bullhorn, thereby assuring that a large audience would hear their defamatory statements,” according to the complaint filed by Allyn W. Gibson and his son, David R. Gibson.
“The college did not defame the plaintiffs,” Ambar said, adding Raimondo spoke through a bullhorn only to clarify her role according to college policy. “The college never produced the flyers that were in question.”
The students accused in the incident later pleaded guilty to attempted theft and aggravated trespass, according to the complaint. The college suspended classes to allow students to protest the bakery and ordered its employees to supply the protesters with free food and drink.
A week after the incident, the college ceased purchasing daily baked goods from the bakery. The college later reinstated its relationship with Gibson’s Bakery but then severed ties when the lawsuit was filed.
Plakas has said administrators hoped to deflect attention from the college’s problems with African-American students by backing students regarding Gibson’s Bakery.
Ambar disputed claims that college administrators took part in the protest. The six-week trial involved more than two dozen witnesses, including former Oberlin College president Martin Krislov.
Plakas said Ambar did not attend the trial and that her characterization of the facts presented was inaccurate.
“She made two brief appearances for testimony,” he said of Ambar. “It’s clear that she has not read the trial transcript.”
Ambar said Krislov and Raimondo both testified they did not know the contents of a student-generated flyer that alleged racism on the part of the bakery owners, adding that the student protest took place less than 24 hours after the arrest in November 2016. Ambar said the editor for the Oberlin News Telegram testified that Raimondo asked a student to hand him a flyer at the protest and the dean was at the protest in accordance with Oberlin College policy to ensure violence did not ensue.
“The jury clearly determined that she had to know what was on the flyer,” Plakas said. “(One) witness testified that she had a stack of flyers that she was distributing.”
Ambar acknowledged the lawsuit’s toll on the college’s relationship with the town.
“There’s no doubt that we’ll be looking at our policies,” she said. “We are under no illusion that the community connection has been harmed.”