Oberlin College president claims Gibson's Bakery case is about free speech

Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar is making the media rounds to claim that the $44 million judgment against her school is a mistake, one which should properly be seen as a case about free speech. Today, Ambar held the school’s first press conference since the judgment to discuss the case.

In the college’s first press conference on the case, Ambar on Monday took questions from reporters and tried to address what she says are misconceptions.

One of the claimed misconceptions: Raimondo’s role in the protests. The initial suit claimed that Raimondo was speaking into a bullhorn and handing out fliers at the protests. Ambar said that Raimondo was required to be there to ensure the protests were safe and lawful and that she took the bullhorn only to fulfill that mission.

The controversy over the vice president’s appearance at the protests shows the balance colleges need to make between keeping students in line and allowing for free speech, Ambar said.

“I would say that it’s complicated,” she said. “Had we not been there and there had been violence or property damage, people would have questioned why we did what we did.”

That matches with what President Ambar said during an interview with NPR over the weekend:

SIMON: What are your concerns about this judgment?

AMBAR: Really, that this is a First Amendment case about whether an institution can be held liable for the speech of its students and the actions of its students. And I think it’s important, whether you’re a progressive or conservative, whether you are a small business owner or a large employer – about whether you can be held responsible for the speech of people who either work for you or are part of your community. And so that’s really what this case is about. And I think it’s important for us to talk about it in that way, even as we can get into some of the disputed facts around this issue…

SIMON: So your position would be that your dean of students would be there, even if there were some Oberlin students who decided to have a Make America Great rally.

AMBAR: Absolutely. The content of the speech isn’t relevant. And she’s supposed to be a liaison to the police. And, in fact, the police contacted her staff to talk about this particular protest as it was happening. So it wouldn’t matter whether they were there for a Make America Great rally or whether they were there to talk about some progressive cause. The content of the speech is not why we’re there. It’s there to be able to protect the community and to make it a lawful protest.

Legal Insurrection, which has followed this case most closely, calls this a “crisis management claim.” It may be true that Meredith Raimondo, the school’s Vice President, would show up at any protest event held by Oberlin students but, in this case, her participation seems to have gone well beyond showing up to monitor the situation. Legal Insurrection points to this statement from the judge who denied Oberlin’s attempt to have the case dismissed:

Here, it is undisputed that Meredith Raimondo presented at least one individual, Jason Hawk, with a copy of the protest flyer. The remaining evidence surrounding the distribution of the flyer, and the explanations for doing so, are in dispute. But Plaintiffs have presented testimony from individuals who say they observed Raimondo and other Oberlin College employees handing out flyers at the protest. Further, Plaintiffs offered evidence that Defendants permitted the protesters to make copies of the flyer on the Oberlin College Conservatory’s Office’s copy machine during the protests and provided protesters with refreshments and gloves for use during the protests. Weighing all of this evidence in Plaintiffs’ favor, the Court finds there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether Defendants published the flyer.

In the same document, the judge goes on to argue that the contents of the flyer passed out by Raimondo contained statements that would appear to a reasonable person to be based on fact. The judge wrote:

Defendants argue that Plaintiffs cannot rely on the contents of the protest flyer as evidence of their libel claim because the flyer statements are protected opinions. The Court disagrees…

Based on a totality of the circumstances and construing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, the non-moving party, it is this Court’s view that the statements made in the flyer are not constitutionally protected opinion.

In other words, the claims in the flyer were grounds for a libel suit. So the claim being made by Oberlin’s President that this is a case about free speech is false. No doubt president Ambar is doing her best to make her case for an appeal of the judgment. She’d better hope a judge doesn’t look at her refusal to acknowledge the facts of the case and decide Oberlin still hasn’t learned its lesson.