I’ve followed the case of Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College from the outset, and because there’s now a Wikipedia article on the case, I needn’t review the whole mishigass here. The upshot is that after Oberlin’s administrators aided students in an unjustified protest against the claimed racism of the bakery (a racism that proved nonexistent), the bakery sued Oberlin for slander, libel, and interference with both contracts and business relationships. The jury found for Gibson’s initially, awarding them $11.2 million in compensatory damages and $33 million in punitive damages, a hefty bill of $44.2 million for the College.
The judge later reduced the award to $25 million, but slapped another $6.5 million on Oberlin to cover the bakery’s attorney fees and litigation expenses, putting the College in the hole for over $31 million. Because Oberlin filed motions that delayed payment, and then decided to appeal, the judge then required the College to post a bond of $36 million to ensure it could cover the costs if it continued to lose. The interest on the award is also mounting up: $4,000 per day.
Throughout this process, Oberlin has indicated that it’s digging in for the long haul. It has never apologized to Gibson’s (despite the students who shoplifted having admitted guilt), and is now, as the Legal Insurrection article below reports (as well as an earlier piece), casting the whole verdict as misguided: the protesting students were, claims the College, simply exercising “free speech.”
But that won’t wash, as the jury’s verdict wasn’t based on student behavior but on the behavior of Oberlin officials. As Wikipedia notes,
Gibson’s argued the college supported the protests that damaged its reputation and that the college unlawfully broke its contract with the bakery. In the complaint, the Gibson family alleged that some Oberlin College professors attended the demonstrations, joined in the chants with a bullhorn, and gave course credit to students who skipped class to attend the demonstrations. It also claimed Oberlin employees distributed boycott flyers and allowed them to be photocopied for free on school machines. Oberlin’s Dean of Students, Meredith Raimondo and other College officials joined the protestors, bringing them pizza, authorizing the purchase of winter gloves for students protesting in cold weather, and helping pass out flyers urging passersby to boycott Gibson’s. Jason Hawk, a reporter and editor with the Oberlin News-Tribune testified that Dean Raimondo blocked him repeatedly from photographing the protest, telling him that he did not have a right to photograph the student protestors and handed him a flyer that read “This is a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.”
The jury decided that the evidence was on Gibson’s side.
From the piece:
Oberlin College just announced in an email blast that it not only is appealing the Gibson’s Bakery verdict, it has hired 1st Amendment litigators at the D.C. Office of a large national law firm to lead the appeal.
The email blast announcing the appeal was sent by Chris Canavan, Chair of the Oberlin College Board of Trustees. For most of the past decade Canavan also was Director, Global Policy Development, at Soros Fund Management, until leaving that position last month.
Canavan’s email stated:
Dear Oberlin Community,
I’m writing to share with you this statement regarding the Board of Trustees’ decision to appeal the jury verdict in the litigation arising out of a student protest in 2016.
We continue advancing Oberlin’s educational mission and the One Oberlin plan. Hereis the link to the plan. It is designed to preserve what is special about Oberlin, channel the power of a residential liberal arts education in new ways, and build on the College’s standing as one of the world’s great institutions of higher education.
I look forward to working with you on the One Oberlin initiative.
Chris Canavan ’84
Chair of the Board of Trustees
Who were these fancy lawyers? A statement issued by Oberlin, announcing it was appealing the verdict, reeks with further indebtedness of the College:
The team includes First Amendment attorneys Lee Levine and Seth Berlin from the Washington, D.C., office of the national law firm Ballard Spahr and appellate attorneys Benjamin Sassé and Irene Keyse-Walker from the Cleveland office of the national law firm Tucker Ellis. These attorneys will work with trial counsel from Taft Stettinius & Hollister of Cleveland and from Wickens Herzer Panza of Avon to address the intersection of defamation law, First Amendment principles, and Ohio tort reform doctrines this case raises.
Seriously? Has the college performed a risk assessment? I can hear the “ka-ching!” as I read those names. Finally, Legal Insurrection notes why the college was responsible, quoting an earlier piece:
Ever since the verdicts, Oberlin College has mounted an aggressive public relations campaign seeking to portray itself as the victim, asserting it was being unlawfully held liable for student speech. That narrative is not accurate, as we have pointed out several times:
It is clear that Oberlin College has settled on the claim that it is the defender of student free speech as a crisis management theme.
We have explored many times why the assertion that the college was held liable for the speech of students is false. Oberlin College was held liable for the actions of its administrators, including the Senior Vice President and Dean of Students, in spreading the defamatory statements. The college may dispute the facts, but the legal theory of liability cannot be disputed.
There is a separate legal issue as to whether the accusations against Gibson’s were defamatory or constitutionally protected opinion, but that has nothing to do with the erroneous vicarious liability narrative.
[JAC: That’s Judge Miraldi’s statement that there was sufficient evidence to determine whether College administrators and employees were indeed complicit in actions against Gibson’s.]
It’s clear that the theory of liability was not vicarious based on student or even faculty speech but was based on the actions of Raimondo and other administrators.
There is nothing novel in a corporation being held liable for the actions of its employees, particularly senior employees and officers, acting within the scope of their employment….
So Oberlin is now going to spend a gazillion more bucks defending itself, while the clock ticks and the interest mounts. And the College, like Evergeen State, is facing declining enrollments and budget issues (its available endowment is apparently less then the award).
I am not a legal expert, so I can’t prognosticate whether the verdict will be overturned on appeal. But from what I’ve seen of the evidence and testimony, which is pretty explicit, Oberlin was complicit in actions against Gibson’s. The award may be reduced on appeal, but I do predict the verdict will be upheld, for the award wasn’t based on violating student “free speech”. And Oberlin, which has never apologized to the Gibsons, will continue to have its reputation tarnished.