Oberlin College was ordered by a jury last week to pay $22 million in punitive damages to a local bakery and convenience store after the midwestern liberal arts school was found of responsible for defamation, infliction of emotional distress and intentional interference of business relationships.
The stunning verdict, reached after a six-week trial into a civil lawsuit brought by Gibson's Bakery and Food Market against Oberlin College and its vice president and dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, has drawn nationwide attention and divided the public. First Amendment advocates have argued the decision could have a chilling effect on free speech on college campuses, while supporters of the decision have claimed the ruling sends the message that universities are not immune from accountability — even in a story of "David and Goliath."
The tension between Oberlin and the family-owned establishment began in November 2016, after a physical altercation broke out between three black students at the college and Allyn Gibson Jr., the son and grandson of the owners of Gibson's Bakery, who is white. Gibson Jr. accused one of the students of shoplifting and attempting to illegally purchase wine from the bakery with a fake ID. The three students were arrested.
The Nov. 9, 2016 arrests of the three students, just a day after Donald Trump clinched the presidency, set off a bitter standoff between the liberal arts college and the local bakery, which has been a fixture in the college community for more than 100 years, over free speech, racial profiling and discrimination.
In November 2017, approximately one year after the incident, Gibson's sued Oberlin and Raimondo for libel, slander, interference with business relationships, interference with contracts, deceptive trade practices, infliction of emotional distress, negligent hiring and trespass.
Unusually, the case became a jury trial, which was heard in Lorain County courts this spring — and media coverage of the case suggests conservatives and liberals are deeply divided on the ruling.
Peter Sterne, contributor to the Columbia Journalism Review, told Salon that coverage of the case in right-leaning news outlets points to concerns by modern conservatives that liberal academic institutions give rise to political correctness and leftist social justice warriors (SJW) who are willing to "weaponize" the discourse on issues like race "to excuse any misbehavior by people of marginalized groups."
"Outrage at what happens on college campuses is primarily driven by the right," he said, adding that, for conservatives, the Gibson's lawsuit likely served as "an example of how twisted the values of a progressive college can become."
This can be seen at Fox News, which described the lawsuit as "another flashpoint in the nationwide controversy surrounding universities and political correctness," and quoted Trump's denunciation of "speech codes, safe spaces and trigger warnings."
David French, a conservative writer for National Review, argued that the case "represents an important moment — the moment when the American legal establishment learned that it can potentially impose steep costs on institutions that participate in the kind of cruel, malicious, and vicious mob tactics that have become an all-too-familiar part of the American political landscape."
Right-wing fringe blog Gateway Pundit characterized the case a "racist smear campaign," while The Washington Examiner said the ruling acts as a "warning to every other school that things it can wage a social justice war on private businesses using the common 'by any means' strategy of lying in order to increase awareness." And in an opinion piece published on Fox News, Michael Knowles, a conservative political commentator, stated that the decision made clear that "'social justice' has lost a round to actual justice."
Liberal writers and first amendment lawyers, on the other hand, expressed concern that the case's fallout could have negative effects on other colleges and universities across the country, as institutions of higher education grapple with backlash against the rise of identity politics on college campuses and questions surrounding freedom of speech.
"The college should not be held legally responsible for statements made by students or faculty who are not speaking for the college as a whole," Evan Gerstmann wrote in an op-ed, published in Forbes. "This verdict, if it isn't reversed by an appellate court, provides a powerful incentive for universities to punish and restrict controversial speech."
Alison Schary, First Amendment lawyer at Davis Wright Tremaine, called the verdict "deeply troubling."
"Holding universities financially liable for student speech will inevitably lead them to police and censor that speech, creating a chilling effect that is antithetical to the First Amendment," Schary told Salon.
Although the verdict solicited various responses across the web, The Oberlin Review, the paper's student newspaper, and Legal Insurrection, a conservative law blog, appeared to agree that news coverage of the case "missed the mark."
"Much of the coverage and commentary has either inaccurately represented the lawsuit and the events that led up to it, or has only presented parts of the larger story," the editorial board at The Oberlin Review wrote.
Professor William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection published a piece titled, "What the media is getting wrong about Gibson's Bakery libel verdict against Oberlin College," in which he discusses the coverage of the case with conservative talk show host Michael Berry.
In response to the lawsuit, Oberlin argued that none of the statements cited by the bakery's owners had been defamatory and said the school was not responsible for the views expressed by its students. The college said Raimondo attended the demonstrations to "ensure that students' freedom of speech was protected and that the student demonstrations were safe and lawful."
"Colleges cannot he held liable for the independent actions of their students," Oberlin Vice President Donica Thomas Varner said in an email to the campus community. "Institutions of higher education are obligated to protect freedom of speech on their campuses and respect their students' decision to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights. Oberlin College acted in accordance with these obligations."
The $22 million penalty is not final. Oberlin College could decide to appeal the jury's decision, but it remains unclear if it plans to do so.
In an emailed statement sent to students, administrators and staffers at the liberal arts school following the ruling, the college's president, Carmen Twillie Ambar, wrote that the legal process was far from over.
"Let me be absolutely clear: This is not the final outcome. This is, in fact, just one step along the way of what may turn out to be a lengthy and complex legal process," she said. "I want to assure you that none of this will sway us from our core values. It will not distract, deter, or materially harm our educational mission, for today's student or for generations to come."
Jane Agler contributed reporting.