Oberlin College, a stronghold of progressive ideas, said on Thursday that it would pay $36.59 million to a local bakery that claimed it was defamed and wrongly accused of racism when an employee caught a Black student stealing.
This conflict with Gibson’s Bakery in 2016 ended in a lengthy court battle and reverberated beyond the tiny college town in Ohio, sparking a fierce national discussion about criminal justice, racism, free speech, and whether the institution had failed to hold students accountable.
The college’s board of trustees revealed its decision on Thursday, nine days after the Ohio Supreme Court refused to hear the college’s appeal of a lower court order.
The Gibson family’s attorney, Lee E. Plakas, said in an email on Thursday that “the truth counts.” “David still has a chance to defeat Goliath if he is backed by a moral society.”
In a statement, Oberlin said that “this situation has been distressing for everyone,” adding, “We hope that the conclusion of the case will begin the healing of our whole community.”
The institution admitted that the sum of the verdict, which includes damages and interest, was “substantial” but said that “with careful financial preparation,” including insurance, it could be paid “without compromising our academic and student experience.” Oberlin has a roughly $1 billion endowment.
The verdict, which essentially found that the officials had defamed the bakery, may cause other colleges and universities to reconsider their support for student causes, according to legal experts.
Neal Hutchens, a professor of higher education at the University of Kentucky, said, “Such a significant sum will surely force schools around the nation to take attention and be extremely cautious about the distinction between assisting students and being a part of a cause.” “It wasn’t so much the students speaking; rather, it was the institution accepting this assertion without question. Occasionally, it is necessary to retreat.
Professor Hutchens said that it made a difference because Gibson’s was a small family company and not a giant international firm like Walmart or Amazon, which would be better able to withstand the economic losses of a protest.
Oberlin is a tiny liberal arts institution with a reputation for producing students who excel in the arts and humanities and for its progressive views, drawing largely on its past as an Underground Railroad station and one of the first universities to accept Black students. Tuition at Oberlin is over $61,000 per year, and the total cost of enrollment is above $80,000 per year. The college is also an integral element of the community, which relies on the institution and its students for its economic well-being. The bakery across the street from the college provided donuts and chocolates, and was considered an essential component of the dining experience at Oberlin.
According to court documents, the conflict began in November 2016 when a student attempted to purchase a bottle of wine using a false ID while thieving two other bottles by concealing them beneath his coat.
The retailer said that the college’s position had deterred consumers, who feared seeming to support a business that the institution had branded as racist.
Oberlin contested many portions of this story and maintained that students were expressing their First Amendment right to free expression. The government said that it was only attempting to maintain calm. The college’s court documents also said that Allyn Gibson was skilled in martial arts and had attracted negative attention to the business by pursuing a student out of the store and into public view.
In the spring, a three-judge panel of the Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed the jury’s conclusion, reached after a six-week trial, that Oberlin was liable for libel, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and intentional interference with a business relationship — that it had defamed the business by siding with the protesters. A court lowered the jury’s first decision of $44 million in punitive and compensatory damages, which was originally far larger. The most recent sum includes around $5 million in compensatory damages, over $20 million in punitive damages, $6.5 million in legal expenses, and approximately $5 million in interest.
In this decision, the Court of Appeals acknowledged students’ freedom to demonstrate. The court, however, ruled that the flyer and a related student senate resolution claiming the business had a history of racial profiling were not constitutionally protected expressions of opinion.
After the 2019 jury award against Oberlin, the college president, Carmen Twillie Ambar, stated that the case was far from over and that “none of this will sway us from our core values.” The college stated at the time that the bakery’s “archaic chase-and-detain policy regarding suspected shoplifters” was the cause of the protests.
However, in a statement released on Thursday, Oberlin implied that the prolonged and acrimonious conflict had harmed its relationships with the neighbouring community’s residents and businesses.