Oberlin College to Pay $36 million to Local Bakery it Falsely Accused of Racism
On September 8, 2022, Oberlin College, a private liberal arts college in Oberlin, Ohio, announced that it would stop contesting a legal judgement against the college for defamation. The college also said it had initiated payments on the $36-million judgement awarded to the plaintiff, Gibson’s Bakery, a long-time family-owned business located across the street from the College. This concession by Oberlin ends a controversial battle over the line between free speech and actionable defamation.
The case stemmed from a shoplifting allegation by a clerk at Gibson’s bakery against a black Oberlin student. On November 9, 2016, Oberlin student Jonathan Aladin presented a fake ID to try to buy a bottle of wine at the store. The clerk, Allyn Gibson Jr., rejected the ID, and, noticing two bottles of wine under Aladin’s shirt, accused him of shoplifting. Gibson chased Aladin outside and tackled him. Two bystander friends of Aladin, also Oberlin students, intervened and attacked Gibson. The police arrested the three students, who later pled guilty to misdemeanor charges.
The day after the incident, Oberlin students announced plans to protest the bakery, believing that the three students had been subject to racial profiling. A flier was circulated asserting that Gibson’s Bakery was a “RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT OF RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION” and accused Gibson of profiling and assaulting Aladin. Meredith Raimondo, the Dean of Students at Oberlin, attended the protest, and influenced the school’s dining hall to stop purchasing food from the bakery. On the same day, the student senate at Oberlin passed a resolution urging students to stop supporting Gibson’s and called on the College to condemn the store’s treatment of students of color. The resolution laid out “key facts” about the incident, including the alleged assault and the bakery’s history of racial profiling. The resolution was emailed to the student body and posted in a display case at the student center for almost a year.
The Gibsons sued Oberlin for libel, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and sued Raimondo personally for international interference with a business relationship. The Gibsons alleged that the student protests and the distributed flier and resolution were false and defamatory statements that had caused them significant harm. The court dismissed the claims based on the verbal protests by students, citing First Amendment protections. The other claims moved forward to trial, where the jury found for the Gibson family. Oberlin then submitted a motion for a judgement notwithstanding the verdict, asking the judge to set aside the jury’s verdict on grounds that the statements in question were not defamatory as a matter of law. The trial court denied the motion, and Oberlin appealed to the Ohio Court of Appeals for the Ninth District.
To establish defamation, a plaintiff must show (1) that a false statement of fact was made, (2) that the statement was defamatory, (3) that the statement was published, (4) that the plaintiff suffered injury as a proximate result of the publication, and (5) that the defendant acted with the requisite degree of fault in publishing the statement.
At trial, Oberlin argued that the statements in questions were constitutionally protected opinions, and so could not be actionable on defamation grounds. Oberlin also contended that they did not publish the statement or act with the requisite degree of fault.
The trial court rejected Oberlin’s claims that the statements in question were opinions, holding that the statements in the flier and in the resolution concerning Gibson’s history of racial profiling and the description of the incident as an assault would be reasonably interpreted as asserting factual claims about Gibson’s past history and the nature of the incident.
The Court of Appeals affirmed this finding, noting that within “the broader context of the environment at the college, where students had been expressing ongoing dissatisfaction with racial injustice on campus and in the community at large…[and] given the public’s lack of knowledge of what had happened at the bakery…these statements would convey to a reasonable reader that the arrest and alleged assault at the bakery were racially motivated, that the Gibsons had a verifiable history of racially profiling shoplifters on that basis for years, and that those facts were a reason to boycott the bakery.”
The trial court also denied Oberlin motion with regard to the “publication” element. Publication is any act by which defamatory matter is communicated to a third party. Anyone who causes or participates in the publication of defamatory matter is responsible for such publication, including one who aids another in the publication.
According to testimony at trial, two college administrators distributed copies of the flier to people at the protest, and students were told they could make copies in Oberlin offices. The Court of Appeals also noted that college administrators were aware that the resolution was being displayed in the student center, but did not ask for it to be removed until the Gibsons filed the lawsuit. In rejecting Oberlin’s claim that it had no obligation to remove the flier, the court relied on precedent that one who intentionally and unreasonably fails to remove defamatory material under one’s control can be liable for the publication of the material.
Finally, the court rejected Oberlin’s contention that the Gibsons were “public figures,” who are less protected by defamation laws. The Gibsons did not inject themselves into public controversy, the court observed, and merely running a well-known business does not make someone a public figure. As such, the Gibsons need only show negligence, not the “actual malice” that public figures alleging defamation must show.
The Court of Appeals also upheld the verdict against Raimondo for tortious interference with a business relationship, as well as the judgment against Oberlin for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The fallout from the incident, and the ensuing jury verdict and ruling of the appeals court had taken on broader political and ideological significance.
Many celebrated the verdict, arguing that the incident at Oberlin was an example of the “social justice” culture of on college campuses gone too far. They note the lack of evidence of racial profiling, and the speed with which college administrators sided with and joined the students in their protests and vitriol directed at a local small business, even as the evidence failed to support the students’ claim. The case at Oberlin is seen as symptomatic of a broader problem of college administrators blindly facilitating aggressive and ideologically-driven student activism, and the ruling against Oberlin is a victory which sends a message that “Colleges and universities aren’t immune from accountability for participating in aggressive activism among their students, especially when that activism is built on lies and smears.”
On the other side, there is concern that the case wrongly expanded the category of defamatory speech at the expense of constitutionally protected speech. On this argument, accusations of racism, even those causing substantial harm, have long been considered matters of opinion, and thus protected by the First Amendment. Furthermore, opening the door to litigation for accusations of bigotry can have a chilling effect on speech, especially on college campuses. One commentator remarked “One can imagine the level of censorship required if every time a student, professor, or speaker said that some individual or company was racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-religious, stupid, or anything else negative, the college could be sued unless they took action to silence this speech.”
While the Oberlin case is closed, the tensions referred to by the Court of Appeals are likely to remain, as is the likelihood of further legal contests over what people are free to say and what constitutes defamation.
 “After a Legal Fight, Oberlin Says It Will Pay $36.59 Million to a Local Bakery“ https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/08/us/oberlin-bakery-lawsuit.html?partner=slack&smid=sl-share.
 “Oberlin College to pay $37 million to local bakery after students alleged racism” https://www.cbsnews.com/news/oberlin-bakery-lawsuit-shoplifting-incident/.
 “After a Legal Fight, Oberlin Says It Will Pay $36.59 Million to a Local Bakery“https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/08/us/oberlin-bakery-lawsuit.html?partner=slack&smid=sl-share.
 GIBSON BROS., INC. v. Oberlin College, 13.