Oberlin College’s president is still saying that Gibson’s Bakery, which won a $44 million judgment against the Ohio school in a libel lawsuit back in June, has a history of racism, according to an interview she gave to CBS’s Ted Koppel.
Legal Insurrection, which closely followed the case between Oberlin and Gibson’s Bakery reports that Carmen Twillie Ambar told Koppel that the school’s campaign against the bakery wasn’t necessarily the result of a single “racial” incident, but rather a “series of things that happened” before the incident that gave rise to the lawsuit.
In November of 2016, Gibson’s Bakery, which also sells sundries and alcohol, caught an African-American Oberlin student stealing two bottles of wine. A chase ensued between a bakery employee and the alleged shoplifter and ended with an altercation between Gibson’s Bakery employees and three students. The three students were arrested and one was later charged with theft and use of a false ID.
What should have been a straightfoward incident exploded when Oberlin students began protesting the bakery, accusing it of racism and discrimination. Worse, according to emails unearthed during the discovery phase of the trial, the College appeared to have encouraged the protests and reimbursed students who purchased materials for demonstrations.
Gibson’s sued Oberlin for libel and won. A jury awarded the bakery a staggering $11 million in their lawsuit and later, after a separate trial on punitive damages, an additional $33 million. A court later reduced the settlement to $25 million to come in line with Ohio’s tort caps, but Gibson’s was awarded $6.5 million in legal fees.
As Legal Insurrection’s Prof. William Jacobson points out, Oberlin may have lost in court, but they’re determined to win in the court of public opinion. They tried to get one of the bakery’s employee’s Facebook posts unsealed, ostensibly to prove that he was motivated by racial animus (it failed), they’ve appealed the jury verdict claiming their own “free speech” was violated when they lost the libel trial and were relieved of nearly $50 million. They agreed to the interview with CBS, perhaps believing the mainstream media network might take their side.
The school’s president ended up suggesting that Oberlin has done nothing wrong because the bakery has a history of discrimination (emphasis added).
KOPPEL: …. But to this day, the president of Oberlin makes allusions to a pattern of racist behavior, if not the specific incident that set things off three years ago.
AMBAR: Well, the students pled guilty to the shoplifting. Um, there has been some debate about whether it was shoplifting or false ID.
KOPPEL: It was both.
AMBAR: Right. Well, I think that, that one of the things that the college has always said is that the college has not, doesn’t condone shoplifting, doesn’t condone bad behavior by its students in any way, shape or form. But what led up to the protest, and I think that’s sort of kind of the core issue here, was some series of things that happened before. Some perspectives about people’s experiences in the store.
KOPPEL: Tell me about, tell me about those then. And be specific. What specific incidents are you referring to that happened before?
AMBAR: Right, well, I think that the specific incidents would be, the perception by faculty and students and staff and other people in the town that there had been disparate treatment with respect to people of color in the store. The way I would phrase it, kind of different lived experiences.
Lived experiences are, of course, not concrete. And Ambar seems to tread perilously close to reiterating the sentiment that Oberlin was punished for: smearing the bakery with allegations of racism.
Oberlin College announced in early October that it intends to appeal the jury verdict, citing the long-term financial health of the school (something that has, apparently, never bothered them before). The college also claims that the award “sets a troubling precedent for free speech.”
“The College and the town of Oberlin have been vital to one another since 1833, and we value our long-term relationships with the town’s citizens and businesses. We also have a mission to support free inquiry, allow faculty and students to ask difficult questions and to reach and express their own conclusions. The judgment in this case effectively punishes us for doing just that,” Oberlin said in a statement. “The verdict and judgment in this case set a precedent that endangers free speech on campuses and for all Americans. The jury was allowed to award substantial damages for speech that is protected by the Constitution. The case should absolutely be reviewed by an appellate court.”
Gibson’s, in turn, has filed a cross-appeal, challenging the court’s revision of the jury’s award, suggesting that the award cap violates their due process rights.