A family that has owned and operated an Ohio bakery near Oberlin College since 1885 suffered accusations of racism and protests after stopping a black Oberlin College student from shoplifting. That prompted the Gibson family, which has owned and operated the business since its inception, to sue the college and its interim vice president and dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, asserting that they had defamed the bakery and caused emotional distress.
On Friday, a jury awarded the family $11 million.
A witness for the plaintiffs, accountant Frank Monaco, had testified that the Gibsons were set to lose about $5.8 million over the next 30 years because of the accusations of racism. He noted that the business had been in operation for over 130 years, adding, “When you have people thinking you’re racist, and you live in a small town, the accusation can last a lifetime.”
A witness testifying for the defendants claimed the business was worth only $35,000.
According to the lawsuit filed by the Gibson family, David Gibson and his son, Allyn, were working at the bakery on November 9, 2016, when Jonathan Aladin entered the bakery with two other students, Cecelia Whettstone and Endia Lawrence.
According to The Chronicle-Telegram:
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.
The lawsuit quoted Aladin’s written statement at his sentencing hearing, which it said read like this:
On November 9, 2016, I entered Gibson’s Market in Oberlin, Ohio, and attempted to purchase alcohol with a fake ID. When the clerk recognized the fake ID, I struggled with the clerk to recover the fake ID. The clerk was within his legal rights to detain me, and I regret presenting a fake ID in an attempt to obtain alcohol. Thus unfortunate incident was triggered by my attempt to purchase alcohol. I believe the employees of Gibsons’ actions were not racially motivated. They were merely trying to prevent an underage sale.
The two other students also agreed in their written statements that there was no racial motivation for the Gibsons’ employees actions.
After Aladin was arrested and charged with robbery, a felony of the second degree, the family, trying to quiet the situation down and thinking of what was best for the community, agreed to a plea deal whereby the felony robbery charge would be dismissed and replaced by a far lesser charge, attempted theft, which is a second-degree misdemeanor. But the Oberlin Municipal Court judge stated that was unacceptable, as he was worried about the precedent that would be set. He wrote:
Gibson Bakery has been accused of racism according to the motion and an economic sanction has been leveled against Gibson Bakery for their participation in the alleged robbery. The College has decided that they are not going to do business with Gibson’s bakery because of their involvement in the alleged robbery. A conclusion may be drawn that the (alleged) victims of the robbery have little choice but to assent in this proposal under penalty of a permanent economic sanction. While it is commendable that the Gibsons profess that they believe this to be in the best interests of the community, the court is concerned about the potential precedent setting of permitting a business owner under these circumstances to assent to such an agreement where such a serious crime is alleged.
The judge added, “Something happened that caused the police and prosecutor to charge and pursue a second degree felony.”
The lawsuit noted that following the arrest of the three students, Oberlin College staff, including deans and professors, Raimondo included, joined the demonstrations in front of the bakery. They handed out a flyer that accused the bakery of racially profiling and discriminating against the three students. The flyer even stated that the bakery “is a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.”
The lawsuit alleged that Raimondo shouted defamatory statements on a bullhorn at the demonstration and that the college suspended classes so students could attend the demonstration. The lawsuit also alleged that the college supplied the demonstrators with free food and drink. It also stated that Oberlin police investigated and found no evidence that the bakery was racist.
The lawsuit said that a member of the Oberlin police department mistakenly gave a college administrator the fake ID used by Aladin during the attempted robbery. The lawsuit added that as it was evidence of a crime, the police asked for the ID back, but the college initially refused, only returning the ID after the police department threatened to pursue obstruction of justice charges against the college.
In November 2016, the college announced it would no longer purchase items from the bakery. The lawsuit claimed that the college said it would resume doing business with the bakery if the Gibsons would not file criminal charges against first-time shoplifters. The lawsuit said it was also suggested that if a student was caught shoplifting, the bakery should inform Raimondo rather than police.
After the verdict, Donica Thomas Varner, Vice President, General Counsel & Secretary for the college, sent out an email that stated:
We are disappointed with the verdict and regret that the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented. 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 protests.
As we have stated, colleges cannot be held liable for the independent actions of their students. 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.
David Gibson stated after the verdict, “I am at a loss for words. Two-and-a-half years of putting up with this has been very difficult and overwhelming. I just want to let people know across the country that this can happen to anyone else, but we stayed and worked together as a family and fought against this. In many ways, what we wanted from Oberlin College the jury gave to us. They said we were not racists and that the college should have said so when all this started. I thank the jury for seeing what we have seen from the beginning of this.”
An attorney for the Gibsons, Lee Plakas, added:
What the jury saw is that teaching students and having them learn how to be upstanding members of the community is what colleges are supposed to do, not appease some students who they are afraid of. People around the country should learn from this, that you can use the legal system to right the wrongs, even if the one doing the wrong is some huge institution who thinks they can do anything they want.