The owners of an Ohio bakery who sued for libel after being targeted by student protests has won an $11 million verdict against Oberlin College.
A Lorain County jury on Friday ordered Oberlin to pay $11 million in compensatory damages to Gibson’s Bakery, a local fixture since 1885 that was beset by protests and allegations of racism after three black students were arrested for shoplifting the day after the 2016 presidential election.
“The jury saw that Oberlin College went out of their way to harm a good family and longtime business in their community for no real reason, and the jury said we aren’t going to tolerate that in our community anymore,” Owen Rarric, an attorney for the Gibsons, told Legal Insurrection.
The award, which could triple at Tuesday’s hearing on punitive damages, came as a warning to universities that encourage social justice activism as student protests spills from the campus to the local community.
“The verdict sends a strong message that colleges and universities cannot simply wind up and set loose student social justice warriors and then wash their hands of the consequences,” said Cornell Law School professor William Jacobson, who runs the conservative Legal Insurrection website.
Bakery owners said they lost business after Oberlin students held protests accusing them of discrimination. The student Senate passed a resolution claiming Gibson’s had “a long history of racial profiling,” and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo was accused of passing out an anti-Gibson’s flier.
Students boycotted the bakery, while the college cut off and then resumed its contract for baked goods.
Oberlin argued it was not responsible for the students’ actions. Meanwhile, the three students pleaded guilty to shoplifting and aggravated trespass while issuing statements absolving the bakery of racism.
In 2017, Gibson’s sued the college for libel; tortuous influence with business relationships and contracts, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, culminating in the nearly month-long trial in Elyria, Ohio.
“The students eventually pleaded guilty, but not before large protests and boycotts intended to destroy the bakery and defame the owners,” Mr. Jacobson said. “The jury appears to have accepted that Oberlin College facilitated the wrongful conduct against the bakery.”
In an email Friday to the college community, Oberlin general counsel Donica Thomas Varner said the college was “disappointed” with the verdict and would determine how to proceed.
She insisted that the college and Ms. Raimondo “worked to ensure that students’ freedom of speech was protected and that the student demonstrations were safe and lawful.”
“As we have stated, colleges cannot be held liable for the independent actions of their students,” Ms. Varner said. “Institutions of higher education are obligated to protect freedom of speech on their campuses and respect students’ decisions to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights. Oberlin College acted in accordance with these obligations.”
Mr. Rarric disagreed.
“The College kept saying we don’t control our students,” he said. “But the jury told them we can tolerate some of this fro time to time, but not what you did this time.”
David Gibson said afterward the trial had taken a toll on the family and called the verdict “a relief,” as shown in video posted by The Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria, Ohio.
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