Oberlin College is again in the news and for all the wrong reasons.
The college has become infamous for its dealings with a small shop that has been owned by the Gibson family for 134 years.
The problems began in 2016 when a black Oberlin student attempted to steal alcohol from the shop. One of the part-owners detected the theft and asked him not to leave the shop while he phoned the police. The student decided to leave. The clerk chased him down. When he caught up with the student shoplifter, he was assaulted by the student and his two female friends. This assault, according to the Quadrant, included kicking and hitting.
The following day hundreds of Oberlin students gathered at the Gibson bakery shop for a protest. They claimed the shop was “racist”. Their protest was supported by a number of college officials.
From the Quadrant:
In November 2016 an under-age Oberlin student stole a bottle of wine from the shop. When the shop’s store clerk and co-owner, Allyn Gibson, noticed this theft, he chased the thief in the street, and was then hit and knocked to the ground, punched and kicked by this student and two of his student friends, all of whom were black. The next day, hundreds of Oberlin students gathered for a mass protest, across the street from the shop, aided by its Dean of Students, Meredith Raimondo, and other college officials. Raimondo and others passed out flyers claiming of Gibson’s, “This is a racist establishment with a long account [sic] of racial profiling and discrimination”, and urging a boycott of the shop. The next day, the Oberlin College Senate voted to boycott the shop. The college also urged the shop not to punish first-time shoplifters. This affair occurred the day after Donald Trump was unexpectedly elected president, an event specifically deplored in a memo by Dean Raimondo.
The Chronicle gives a blow-by-blow account of the original incident:
Oberlin police reported that Aladin tried to buy a bottle of wine Nov. 9 but Allyn Gibson, whose family owns the bakery, refused to sell it to him. Gibson confronted Aladin about the two bottles of wine the student allegedly had hidden under his shirt.
The police report said Gibson told Aladin he was calling the police and not to leave. Aladin allegedly tried to leave, and Gibson told police he took out his phone to take a picture. That’s when Gibson said Aladin slapped the phone from his hand and the device hit Gibson in the face. Police have said Aladin then ran from the store, dropping the two bottles of wine to the floor.
Gibson chased after Aladin and the two men got into a physical confrontation outside.
When police arrived, they reported seeing Gibson on the ground with Aladin, Lawrence and Whettstone hitting him.
Days of protests followed the incident when the students insinuated that Gibson’s actions were racially motivated as the students are black and Gibson is white.
Before the sentencing, Aladin, Lawrence and Whettstone each read statements acknowledging that Gibson was within his right to detain Aladin and that his actions were not racially motivated.
Students from Oberlin College had cost the small shop a considerable amount of money with a constant string of thefts and shoftlifting:
Gibson’s shop has existed for five generations, owned by the same family for 134 years, and has no history of “racial profiling”. Between 2011 and 2016, forty persons were arrested for shoplifting there, of whom thirty-two were white and thirty-three were Oberlin students. The three students involved in the assault themselves claimed that Gibson’s actions were not racially motivated. Shoplifting is a problem costing tens of thousands of dollars a year to Gibson’s and other small businesses in the town. Many, perhaps most, shoplifters are Oberlin students, a large number of whom come from affluent homes.
The college, it was alleged by Gibson’s in court, then engaged in a deliberate and concerted attempt to boycott the shop and bankrupt it, leading to a loss of many thousands of dollars and requiring the shop to lay off most of its staff. In other words, a college with 2850 students, 327 academic staff, and $900 million in the bank, attempted to put a small local shop out of business for mendacious reasons stemming from its prevalent left-wing ideology, an egregious example of bullying and intimidation.
Justice dollars at Gibson’s: In 2016, people flocked to Gibson’s Bakery in a conspictuous display of support. The Chronicle reported: “They came on foot and on motorcycles, in cars and trucks and from all corners of the state to Gibson’s Bakery for doughnuts, coffee and, in their words, justice.” It is anticipated that Gibson’s Bakery will again receive widespread community support as it weathers legal attack by Oberlin College.
The courts upheld the cause of Gibson’s shop, which successfully argued that the claims of racism were unjust, unfounded, and amounted to libel and torturous interference. This had cost the business a lot of money and the family their peace of mind.
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.
While those business ties were reinstated three months later, the shop had already suffered severe consequences, the suit said.
The combined effects of the “defamation, boycotts, demonstrations, and refusal to do business with Gibson’s Bakery was having a devastating effect on Gibson’s Bakery and the Gibson family,” the lawsuit stated.
A jury ordered that the shop pay 11 million dollars in punitive damages. This was not something the college was particularly pleased about. In their view, Oberlin’s officials had only sought to protect their students’ “freedom of speech”. Oberlin took the view that Dean Raimondo was merely policing the protest and was simply there in a protective capacity. Clearly, Gibson’s Bakery represented a threat to the student protestors whose freedom of speech could be denied them at any time. Therefore it was obviously necessary for Dean Meredith Raimondo to attend the protest in order to prevent the students being robbed of their right to free speech while they committed an act of libel and damaged the business.
But Donica Thomas Varner, Oberlin vice president and general counsel, wrote a letter to members of the Oberlin community.
“We are disappointed with the verdict and regret that the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented,” the letter said.
“Neither Oberlin College nor Dean Meredith Raimondo defamed a local business or its owners, and they never endorsed statements made by others. Rather, the College and Dr. Raimondo worked to ensure that students’ freedom of speech was protected and that the student demonstrations were safe and lawful, and they attempted to help the plaintiffs repair any harm caused by the student’s protests.”
It’s not clear whether Oberlin will appeal the costly verdict.
“Our team will review the jury’s verdict and determine how to move forward,” Varner wrote.
Meanwhile, the students who staged the assault – Jonathan Aladin and Endia Lawrence – pled guilty to attempted theft and aggravated trespass. The third student, Cecelia Whettstone also pled guilty but her case has since been expunged.
Crime and punishment: Cecelia Whettstone, Endia Lawrence, and Jonathan Aladin appear before Judge James Miraldi. According to The Chronicle: “Jonathan Aladin, 20, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of attempted theft, aggravated trespassing and underage purchase of alcohol. Endia Lawrence and Cecelia Whettstone, both 19, pleaded guilty to attempted theft and aggravated trespassing.” They were required to each pay $334 to cover the expenses of the victim, Allyn Gibson.
Having had time to review the verdict, Oberlin College has decided that it is the victim after all. Today the College Fix reported that the college will sue the shop using some extremely high powered legal representation:
Ballard Spahr’s Lee Levine and Seth Berlin, based in D.C., are two First Amendment veterans with six decades of experience between them, including arguments before the Supreme Court and many federal appeals courts. Berlin also teaches at Georgetown’s law school.
They join appellate attorneys Benjamin Sassé and Irene Keyse-Walker from the Cleveland office of Tucker Ellis. Sassé (not to be confused with the Republican senator) and Keyse-Walker are Ohio specialists, having argued many times before the Ohio Supreme Court and appellate courts.
There is no clue given as to how much the college will pay for these legal services, but it is estimated to run into many millions of dollars.
The reasons the college gives for this new legal action are twofold:
“The decision is grounded in the board’s fiduciary responsibility to the College’s long-term financial health,” said Board Chairman Chris Canavan. Left standing, the verdict could also set a troubling precedent for those institutions, like Oberlin, that are committed to respecting free speech, he said.
Yet, Oberlin declined to settle with Gibson’s shop for 1 million dollars when it had the chance – a bargain deal in comparison with where they ended up – and they give no indication how they intend to recoup their enormous legal costs from a family-owned local shop if a court rules in their favour. At the very least, it is likely to take many years to recover a fraction of their outlay. This is not fiscal responsibility.
Oberlin also declines to explain how the defamation of a shop on the basis of complete fiction – a totally false narrative – in response to a shop justly protecting its goods from theft, is a free speech issue. Should people be allowed to say whatever they like, even if it is utterly false? Should businesses be ruined because someone cooks up a rumour about them? Gibson’s shop points out that there are limits to freedom of speech, and under law, libel is one such limit. Torturous interference is another. We are not permitted to say what is false about others in order to punish or destroy them.
Oberlin College is notoriously liberal and jealously protects that image. It has obviously decided that it has invested too much in that image to allow it to crack apart at the hands of a local retailer. There is something nearly aristocratic and imperious about this action, as the college appears to think that protecting its image as a champion of constitutional freedoms is more important than actual justice.
It certainly looks terrible for Oberlin to end up as the Goliath in a David and Goliath battle – to be publicly identified as the oversized brute bullying the little guy – but the more legal action they take, the more people will come to this conclusion.
Support for Gibson’s Bakery is enduring and international. On August 6, 2019, the Facebook page for the bakery gave a heartfelt thanks to its supporters. Given the new action by Oberlin, it will be necessary for the family business to once again rely people around the world for support against the bottomless depths of Oberlin’s resources.
Battle of a lifetime: David Gibson thanks supporters, college students, jurors and others for their support and compassion. He also announces his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.