Defamation, Free Speech, & Racism: Oberlin College Lawsuit

In Ohio, Oberlin College is facing a civil lawsuit for libel and slander brought upon by a local family-run convenience store. This case is particularly interesting because of the many other factors that accompany it. From a reputation of racial tensions on campus to issues of free speech within the university, this small liberal arts college has a complex case on their hands. Let’s dive in.

Back in November 2016, the country had just found out that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. In anticipation of the students' reactions to this news, Oberlin College’s administration decided to address concerns of students and staff by sending out an email. The subject of this email was not only in regards to the recent election, but the college also decided to address concerns about a recent arrest on campus, according to an article by the ABA Journal.

On the day after the election, three African American students from Oberlin College were arrested in connection with attempting to steal bottles of wine from a convenience store on the town square. After a brief scuffle with the shopkeeper, they were arrested and charged,” according to an article by the ABA Journal.

According to the Washington Times, the arrests at Gibson’s Food Market and Bakery sparked the store to endure accusations of racism, mass protests, and boycotts by the students.

In response to the attacks facing the business, Gibson’s decided to pursue a civil lawsuit that intends to charge Oberlin College with libel and slander after claims that school’s statements have defamed the store’s name and business, according to the ABA Journal.

Now, this shoplifting scandal is not the first time issues of racism have been thrust into the spotlight at Oberlin. For years, the school has received national news coverage of their social justice battles. An article published by Legal Insurrection highlights the numerous instances the liberal arts college made headlines for campus protests. In December 2015, the Black Students Union drafted a 14-page document addressed to the college administration listing demands that intended to combat issues of racism in higher education, but ended with threats of force if the demands were not met.

“Some of the challenges outlined in the document resonate with me and many members of our community, including our trustees. However, some of the solutions it proposes are deeply troubling. I will not respond directly to any document that explicitly rejects the notion of collaborative engagement. Many of its demands contravene principles of shared governance. And it contains personal attacks on a number of faculty and staff members who are dedicated and valued members of this community,” said President of Oberlin College Marvin Krislov in the school’s response to the student demands.

Looking at the school’s history of issues with racism, you can begin to understand how easily it was for Gibson’s to become a target of the student body after three African American students were charged with shoplifting, especially after Oberlin addressed the arrest incident publicly during a time when emotions were high in our country.

In fact, the email did have implications that there were other factors involved in the arrest. In a quote from the email published by the ABA Journal, the school addressed concern about the incident by stating, “We are deeply troubled because we have heard from students that there is more to the story than what has been generally reported. We will commit every resource to determining the full and true narrative, including exploring whether this is a pattern and not an isolated incident.”

Can you see how this quote can cause many to believe that racism was involved? Using words like “pattern” and phrases like “there is more to the story”, in addition to the institutions issues with racism in the past, one could see how students could be motivated to take immediate action. The ABA Journal reported that students began protesting Gibson’s by distributing flyers that encouraged a boycott of the store and implicated that the family-ran store was a “racist establishment”.

To understand the situation more, let’s review what reportedly went down at the convenience store the day of the incident. According to The Oberlin Review, an African American student ran out of Gibson’s after being accused of shoplifting. Chasing after him was Allyn Gibson, the son of the owner, who then allegedly got into a physical altercation with the student after tackling him. Then, two other friends of the student got involved by hitting and pulling on Gibson. While this took place, a customer inside the store called the Oberlin Police Department who upon arriving, immediately arrested the three students and refused to take statements from witnesses.

The Oberlin Review also reported that, “After the arrest, students organized a 12-hour boycott outside Gibson’s Bakery to protest what they characterized as racial profiling from Allyn Gibson, who is white, as well as the Oberlin Police Department.”

However in August 2017, the three students entered a plea deal to avoid the uncertainty of trial, pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges. The students also read statements that withdrew any accusations of racial profiling against Allyn Gibson, according to The Oberlin Review.

Now, looking from a different perspective, you can also see how Gibson’s felt defamed by Oberlin College. On their side of things, they were initially the victims of shoplifting and now they have been labeled as a racist establishment causing their business to decline.

But should Oberlin College be held responsible for the actions taken by its students? Normally, when free speech issues arise within college campuses, it usually has to do with the university  allowing or restricting protests when they involve a controversial speaker or topic. However, this case is a little different.

To make it even more interesting, the ABA Journal reports the lawsuit alleges that Meredith Raimondo, Oberlin’s vice president, was involved in passing out the flyers and even lead the demonstration using a megaphone. Additionally, the lawsuit also contains allegations that college resources were used to plan and execute the protest.

In a quote published by the Oberlin Journal, Scott Wargo, Oberlin’s director of media relations, responded to claims that the school was directly involved by stating, “We are disappointed. Every effort to resolve this matter has been to no avail. We believe the evidence is clear. Neither Oberlin College nor Dr. Raimondo defamed a local business [nor] its owners. Colleges cannot be held liable for the independent actions of students. Employers are not legally responsible for employees who express personal views on personal time. The law is clear on these issues.”

So far, it seems that the court is not necessarily siding with Oberlin College. In a pretrial ruling, the judge denied the school’s request to consider Gibson’s Bakery a “limited purpose public figure” and ruled against keeping the protest flyers out of the case despite Oberlin’s argument that it was a “constitutionally protected opinion”, according to the ABA Journal.

If the court did consider the bakery a “limited purpose public figure”, the outcome of the trail would be much different. This would classify Gibson’s as an establishment that has “thrust themselves to the forefront of particular controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved,” according to the legal definition of a limited-purpose public figure. Gibson’s would need to prove that Oberlin College acted with actual malice (intentions to defame) when participating in the student protests.

However, since Gibson’s bakery will be considered a private business in this case, they would only need to prove Oberlin College was negligent or at fault.

The ABA Journal reports that the case is expected to continue until the end of May. Who do you think will come out on top?

UPDATE: On Thursday June 13th, 2019, the jury awarded Gibson's Bakery a total of $33 million in punitive damages in addition to the $11.2 million compensatory damages already awarded, according to Legal Insurrection. However, since state law caps at twice compensatory, their punitive damage award may be reduced to $22 million for a grand total of $33 million. Legal Insurrection also reported that the jury awarded attorney's fees as well that will be determined by the judge.

In a quote published by Legal Insurrection, David Gibson reacted to the jury by saying, "I appreciate from the Jury that they took care of this Goliath. That took a lot of guts on their part. They made it so we can have a chance to keep the lights on. [overcome with emotion] Gives us an opportunity to keep the lights on for another generation."
If you have been a victim of defamation and seek legal assistance, contact the Internet defamation attorneys at RM Warner Law today. We know how to help.

Source: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/a-trial-between-oberlin-college-and-local-bakery-tackles-first-amendment-questions

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