When college virtue signaling goes too far: Oberlin fined $11 million for defaming a local bakery

June 10, 2019 • 10:30 am

On Friday, an Ohio jury awarded a bakery $11 million in the bakery’s suit over the unconscionable behavior of the local Oberlin College after three of its students were accused of shoplifting by the business (they pleaded guilty). The college, the jury found, engaged in a pattern of defamation and retaliation against the bakery, trying to hurt its business, all as a way of placating college students who were outraged at the arrests. You can see the bakery’s lawsuit here.

It turns out that the $11 million award is a minimum for compensatory damages, and there can be additional punitive damages up to twice the amount of the first award, raising the possibility that the bakery could get as much as $33 million from Oberlin. As far as I can see, Oberlin deserves a big financial hit, for it may serve as a deterrent to it and other schools trying to signal their virtue by placating unjustifiably outraged students.

Oberlin, of course, is a woke school: it’s the Midwestern version of Evergreen State, but I’ll leave you to look up the shenanigans the college and its students have engaged in. (Remember the General Tso’s Chicken controversy?)

You can read the lawsuit story at CNN by clicking on the screenshot below, and a longer account, with some juicy details, at the conservative Legal Insurrection link below (note: that piece is written pretty poorly). The award was for Oberlin engaging in “defamation, infliction of intentional emotional distress and intentional interference of business relationships.”

I’ve followed this story for some time, but now that it’s shaken out I’ll give a few details. Here’s what CNN reports:

The case stems from the November 2016 arrests of three black Oberlin students at Gibson’s Bakery and market near the college’s campus in Oberlin, Ohio.

One student, Jonathan Aladin, was accused of attempted robbery for allegedly trying to “steal wine or otherwise illegally obtain wine” from the bakery, according to a defamation lawsuit. He would eventually confess in a written statement to buying alcohol illegally.

Two other suspects, Cecelia Whettston and Endia J. Lawrence, were arrested and accused of misdemeanor assault, court documents state.

After that, Oberlin staff members tried to discredit the family-owned bakery, the lawsuit says.

The shop said defamation and boycotts by Oberlin have had a “devastating effect on Gibson’s Bakery and the Gibson family.”

Oberlin College staff — including deans and professors — and students engaged in demonstrations in front of Gibson’s Bakery following the arrests of the three students, the lawsuit stated.

The suit also said Oberlin Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo and other college staff members “handed out hundreds of copies” of a flier to the community and the media stating that Gibson’s Bakery and its owners racially profiled and discriminated against the three students.

The court documents include a copy of the flier, which included the words “DON’T BUY.”

“This is a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION,” the flier read, according to the lawsuit.

The flier also listed 10 of the bakery’s competitors and urged customers to shop there instead.

Then in November 2016, the lawsuit stated, Oberlin College said it severed its business ties with Gibson’s Bakery. The shop had provided baked goods for the school’s dining services through a third-party company.

The thing is that all three students pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated trespass and attempted theft. So by their own admission they did the crime. But that wasn’t enough for the uber-woke Oberlin.

Oberlin didn’t exactly act judiciously here, choosing to demonize the bakery—and break off commercial ties to it—as a way of placating students who saw the shoplifting charge as a sign of racism. I guess they didn’t count on the bakery owners having the moxie to sue. Have a gander at the President and Dean’s letter to the students in the LI excerpt below:

. . . the shoplifting case at Gibson’s was grabbed by the students as their symbolic protest expression of how they hated the world because of who was now president.

Instead of realizing that college students often do emotional and stupid things – especially when politics are involved – the Oberlin College administration added fuel to the fire. This is what the school president, Marvin Krislov, and dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, sent to students while the protests were still going on.

“This has been a difficult few days for our community, not simply because of the events at Gibson’s Bakery, but because of the fears and concerns that many are feeling in response to the outcome of the presidential election. We write foremost to acknowledge the pain and sadness that many of you are experiencing. We want you to know that the administration, faculty, and staff are here to support you as we work through this moment together.”

If that letter was not dumb enough, as the jury expertly could see, the school didn’t listen to the smart ones among them. There were plenty of the Oberlin College and community elders who were telling them that how they were handling this student protest was “dumb” and making them “furious.”

This is perhaps the most important. A university, which is supposed to value intelligence and experience and those who pay attention to the bigger picture, did not listen to those folks at all. From my perspective — after hearing this stuff non-stop since April in court — this was the average-Joe, real common-sense rejection idiocy that the jury found Oberlin College was guilty of.

The LI article gives quotes from deposition made by people, some associated with the College, who thought that the institution’s actions were way out of line. The article suggests that the disparity between the local jury (none of whom were Oberlin grads) and the “elite” college may have led to the guilty finding and the large award. Perhaps that was the case, but it could also be construed as a woke college, completely out of touch with common sense, punishing an innocent business to prop up its social-justice credibility.

Whatever happened, Oberlin is out of pocket big time. And, like Evergreen State, it’s going to lose students as well as money.

38 thoughts on “When college virtue signaling goes too far: Oberlin fined $11 million for defaming a local bakery

  1. If you got into Oberlin, you should be smart enough to know that you don’t still wine from a local business because you don’t like the way a national election is going. And then to punish the business for prosecuting students who are acting like petty criminals — it seems like these kids are never going to learn anything.

      1. Pertinent point.
        Stealing wine from a shop to ‘punish’ a business is still stealing.
        Regardless of whether the bakery owners were Trump supporters (it is not mentioned, but I presume), that does in no imaginable way excuse stealing. The Oberlin admin was wrong, spineless and asinine to support and excuse, instead pf cracking down on, the uncalled for mobbing by their students.

      1. That phrase is pretty ridiculous though, at least as commonly used.

        All it takes is the appearance of a woman in a superhero movie, the presence of minorities in Star Wars, a lesbian kiss in a mainstream video-game…and the ‘get woke go broke’ cry goes up, almost in apotropaic desperation.

        And then if the film/tv show/game/pair of Nike trainers does brilliantly, and actually breaks sales records, that phrase is put on the backburner until the next time it can be pulled out and used, more in hope than expectation.

    1. I hate it when insurance companies try to wriggle out of their duty, but here they do have a point.

  2. How often do we equate stupid and college in the same sentence. Think before going out on a limb to protect the quilty. To brush up on your legal knowledge I recommend a book by Preet Bharara, Doing Justice.

  3. My daughter applied to several private colleges in Ohio, including Denison, Wooster, Kenyon and Oberlin. She was required to visit each school for a private interview as part of the application process, after which the parents were invited in to ask questions. In my meeting with the Denison admissions officer, I asked him if he was familiar with the other Ohio schools my daughter was considering, and if he was willing to share his perception of the differences between those schools. He asked me to be more specific and I said that, for example, I had heard that Denison was a more conservative school than Oberlin. The admissions officer laughed out loud and said that, in his view, Denison was very, very liberal, but that “nothing, absolutely nothing, is more liberal than Oberlin.”

    The highlights of the following day’s tour of Oberlin, as explained to us by our Oberlin student tour guide, included the facts that (I am not making this up): “If you have a hobby or anything you’re interested in, like Star Trek or butterflies, you can teach your own class for credit,” and “One of the things we like to do is visit our languages building, which is filled with parakeets that fly freely throughout the building, because nature sounds have been shown to be conducive to learning languages.”

    To my great relief, my daughter chose to attend Denison.

    1. “The highlights of the following day’s tour of Oberlin, as explained to us by our Oberlin student tour guide, included the facts that (I am not making this up): “If you have a hobby or anything you’re interested in, like Star Trek or butterflies, you can teach your own class for credit,” and “One of the things we like to do is visit our languages building, which is filled with parakeets that fly freely throughout the building, because nature sounds have been shown to be conducive to learning languages.””

      This all sounds rather nice. Nothing too bad there. I like the idea of teaching your own hobby to others for extra credit, I think that’s quite a good idea. Probably not Star Trek, but lepidoptery…why not?

      In my old school if we’d known anyone who was interested in butterflies we’d have chased them with a sockful of pennies – so getting the nerds* to try teaching seems an effective, subtle way to give them some confidence and empower them.

      *In my defense, it says ‘like Star Trek or butterflies’, so they clearly are nerds.

      1. The message as I understood it was that anyone could teach a class about anything he/she wanted, for credit. I can’t help but wonder if simply liking butterflies is a sufficient qualification to teach a lepidoptery class at a fairly prominent university.

        1. The students aren’t teaching degrees, no-one’s going to get a phd in biology for attending a class on butterflies. AFAICT they’re just teaching other kids about their hobbies in their spare time. Seems at worst harmless, at best rather a good idea.

            1. As technically expert as you can become at it, I don’t think wanking qualifies as a hobby. And I didn’t know anyone at uni who needed lessons.

              Seriously, that’s a slightly cheap reductio ad absurdum of a pretty unobjectionable idea. I doubt they mean ‘literally anything goes’.

              1. I am pleased that you noted the absurdity of my comment – that was the point. It is absurd to accept undergraduates teaching other undergraduates courses for college/university credit. Yes, I am one of those elitist university professors, which I believe is appropriate. There is no undergraduate that I know of who has the expertise and experience to prepare and present a course that would meet a university curriculum review committee’s requirements for such courses. All university courses should be taught by persons with at least a post-BA degree and preferably a terminal degree in their area of expertise.

              2. I noted the absurdity of your example. But since it was absurd, and wouldn’t actually happen, I didn’t consider it pertinent.

                “There is no undergraduate that I know of who has the expertise and experience to prepare and present a course that would meet a university curriculum review committee’s requirements for such courses”

                …But they’re not teaching such courses, are they? That was my whole point. No-one’s getting a degree in Star Trek or knitting.

                If these classes were to be considered as degree courses, if they had any genuine stature and were to be taken that seriously then yes, you’d have a point. But these are just students teaching other students about their hobbies in their spare time. There’s something faintly ridiculous about the Blimpish outrage it arouses.

                OTOH, maybe you know more about this particular instance than I do: maybe I’m naive, and they _are_ actually conducting PHD courses in masturbation, and students are getting firsts and upper seconds for demonstrating wrist techniques in the middle of lecture halls…but I doubt it.

  4. Technical point – it’s not a fine (which would be the penalty for a crime) it’s a civil judgment.

  5. Sad. My only comment is that there are probably thousands of decent students and faculty at Oberlin (especially in the science departments). These nutty ones are a regrettable minority.

    1. It’s debatable which side would be in the minority. At Evergreen, the sane were clearly outnumbered.

    2. +1 Always good to remember this. The temptation to see them all as a monolithic bloc is…very tempting. It’s a tempting temptation. Temptationy, even.

      Ugh, my brain is knackered.

            1. I must have missed that generation. I didn’t know who Phil Ocks was until I just now looked him up. A kind of minor Dylan it seems. I’m sorry my brain was asleep during his time upon the stage.

              1. All that Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and stuff – it passed me by when I was educating myself on the music of the sixties. I’ve always been put off by any connection to politics in music. Politics is so earthbound, and I like my music to float free of questions like the poll tax and land-purchase rights and whether squatters should have the right to use pub toilets.

                We have a guy called Billy Bragg over here in the UK who is the nadir of that kind of thing.

  6. I haven’t followed this case closely enough to venture an opinion, but it seems there might be some First Amendment issues lurking in the appellate record, especially as regards any award of punitive damages.

  7. Oberlin is probably screwed. You have a plea agreement where the perp’s deny racism, and yet you have a bunch of activists maligning a business as racist. Could you have a clearer case of actual malice, reckless indifference to the truth?

    Second, you can’t deny the institution’s role in the defamation campaign, where the Dean is coordinating it, and the University cuts off commercial dealings with the business (signalling its support of the defamation campaign).

    As far as the First Amendment, you don’t have a First Amendment right to defame private citizens and small businesses. Sorry, its not satire, and its not a public figure.

    Its too bad Oberlin didn’t take its head out of its rear end sooner and apologize and reach some reasonable settlement while it had the chance. Instead, it looks like its betting the farm on woke justice.

  8. I agree with JohnE. We also visited Oberlin, not long after the General Tso incident. There weren’t any obvious signs or signals of the extreme woke-ness, but there was a vibe that made us a bit uncomfortable. (On the plus side, we did visit Gibson’s AND saw WEIT in their bookstore right next to a copy of Origin of Species.) My son ended up at a different college where the viewpoints aren’t as extreme.

    I have some colleagues there in the sciences that don’t demonstrate the attitudes we’re decrying, but I fear that the overall reputation of the college is suffering.

  9. A few questions:

    1.Were the students stealing the wine, or were they trying to buy it underage, using fake IDs? or both?

    2. Why has one students name/case been expunged without explanation? Is this a sign of political influence, from his/her family connections?

    3. It doesn’t seem that Donica Thomas Varner is very contrite over this, and seems to be going the right way to get the punitive damages to be as high as possible, with the possibility that their insurers won’t cover it.
    Could this mean the administrators could be sued personally by the college for the damages?

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