The cost of woke: Appeals court rules Oberlin must pay Gibson's bakery $32 million

(AP Photo/Dake Kang)

You probably remember the story. Back in November 2016, one male and two female students from Oberlin College walked into Gibson’s Bakery, which was located just across the street from campus. The male student attempted to shoplift two bottles of wine by hiding them under his jacket. Allyn Gibson, the son of the store’s owner, tried to take a photo of the thief with his phone but the shoplifter slapped the phone out of his hand and ran, dropping the bottles on his way out. Gibson tried to stop him from leaving while his father, David Gibson, called the police. There was a scuffle which spilled outside. The shoplifter and the two women he was with started punching and kicking Allyn Gibson.

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It should have been a simple story of badly behaved students getting arrested. Except in this case that the shoplifter and one of the women were black and Allyn and David Gibson are white. The next day, students held a protest outside holding up Black Lives Matter signs.

In the crowd was Oberlin College dean of students Meredith Raimondo who was handing out fliers which described Gibson’s bakery as a “racist establishment.” The school also cut off its long business relationship with Gibson’s as students organized a boycott.

In August 2017, all three of the students involved in the incident pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. As part of their plea agreement each of them read a statement in court saying that the actions of the Gibson’s “were not racially motivated.” With their business from the school cut off and their reputation damaged, Gibson’s Bakery sued Oberlin for its involvement in the protests. The school denied it but the Chronicle-Telegram pointed out there was some evidence the school had been involved:

A message sent by associate professor of music theory Jan Miyake said, “So heres one rhing (sic) on my mind about gibsons. They own so much prime property in oberlin that boycotting doesnt hurt them that much. The smear on their brand does, and that’s been taken care of.”…

The document also included some testimony given by Miyake during a deposition for the case. Miyake was asked what she meant by “the smear on their brand does.”…

When asked how Gibson’s brand was smeared, Miyake said, “They protested outside the store for three days chanting, ‘Racists.’”…

In other internal communications included in the filing, [dean of students Meredith] Raimondo allegedly “threatened to weaponize the student body” against a professor after he spoke out against the defamation and boycott of Gibsons, court documents said.

According to court documents, Vice President for Communications Ben Jones sent a text message saying, “(Expletive) ROGER COPELAND.”

“(Expletive) him,” Raimondo responded in a message. “I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us.”

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Eventually a jury agreed and in June 2019 awarded the Bakery $11 million in compensatory damages plus an additional $33 million punitive award. The award was later reduced to $25 million by a judge and the reduction itself became the subject of an appeal. Oberlin also appealed the decision. At the end of last month, the school’s appeal was finally resolved. The appeals court ruled in the bakery’s favor:

Oberlin appealed the massive verdict and made a number of arguments urging the appeals court to overturn the verdict. The three-member panel of the Ohio Court of Appeals was utterly unconvinced.

Judge Donna J. Carr wrote for the panel. In the ruling, Carr pointed out that the case did not present a general First Amendment issue about the right to protest.

“This Court must emphasize, however, that the sole focus of this appeal is on the separate conduct of Oberlin and Raimondo that allegedly caused damage to the Gibsons, not on the First Amendment rights of individuals to voice opinions or protest,” Carr wrote…

Because the statements of fact included in the materials distributed were false, were distributed among students, and were the cause of Gibsons’ financial damages, the appeals court saw no reason to overturn the trial court’s finding of liability.

The claim that this case was about free speech was never tenable. Another part of this case was Oberlin’s claim that they were unfairly prevented from presenting evidence about things they had heard from members of the community. But the appeals court ruled that claim was nonsense:

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The Gibsons presented the testimony of numerous witnesses who knew them either as employees of the bakery, friends, or community members. Those witnesses testified about their own experiences with the Gibsons and the bakery and explained that they had never witnessed any incidents of racism or racial profiling.

Oberlin, on the other hand, did not call witnesses to testify about their personal experiences with the Gibsons. Instead, the defendants sought to have Oberlin administrators testify about “what Oberlin heard” about the Gibsons from community members. Under Evid.R. 801(C), hearsay “is a statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” Oberlin does not argue that these statements were not hearsay or that they fell within an exemption or exception to the rule against admissibility set forth in Evid.R. 802. Oberlin’s excluded evidence was hearsay, while the Gibsons’ evidence on this issue was not.

So the school is going to have to pay Gibson’s $32 million. Ohio’s Attorney General called the judgement “The cost of woke.”

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Unfortunatey, David Gibson died from cancer in November 2019, long before the case was resolved. Still, it’s a big win for the family and a substantial loss for Oberlin, though with an endowment reportedly near a billion dollars they won’t be going broke any time soon.

There are probably several lessons that could be drawn from all of this but the most obvious one is that the noisy contingent of people who want to blame everything on racism shouldn’t automatically be taken at their word. Sometimes a little skepticism of such claims is in order before jumping on the bandwagon. Sometimes shoplifting is just shoplifting.

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David Strom 4:30 PM | May 28, 2024
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