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College ordered to pay $11 million for libeling bakery amid student protests calling family-owned shop 'racist'

'What are we going to tolerate in our society?'

Image source: YouTube screenshot

A jury ordered Oberlin College to pay $11 million to a family-owned bakery, saying the Ohio school libeled the shop's owners amid student protests accusing Gibson's Bakery of engaging in racial profiling, the Chronicle-Telegram reported.

What's the background?

Gibson's — a fixture in downtown Oberlin since 1885 — had been popular with students and was even featured on the college's dining hall menu, Legal Insurrection said.

But that all changed the day after President Donald Trump's 2016 election, the outlet said, when a black male Oberlin student was accused of shoplifting wine. Allyn Gibson — one of the shop's owners, who is white — followed the student out of the store and a scuffle ensued, the Chronicle-Telegram said.

Two black female students got involved, Legal Insurrection reported. Police said when they arrived the three students were hitting Gibson while he was on the ground, the Chronicle-Telegram reported.

The students pleaded guilty in August 2017 to misdemeanor charges — shoplifting and aggravated trespassing, Legal Insurrection said — and read statements into the record saying Gibson was within his right to detain the shoplifter and that his actions weren't racist, the Chronicle-Telegram reported.

But just says after the incident, Oberlin students protested in front of the bakery, the paper said. Black Lives Matter participated in the protests as well, PowerLine blog said.

Here's a protest clip. (Content warning: Language):

BAKERY BOYCOTTED BY BLACK COLLEGE KIDS FIRES BACK, SUES SCHOOL FOR SLANDER youtu.be

Flyers were passed out claiming Gibson's was "racist" and had "a long account of racial profiling and discrimination," Legal Insurrection said, adding that Oberlin Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo allegedly helped to hand out the flyers in front of the bakery.

The Oberlin College Student Senate passed a resolution claiming Gibson's "has a long history of racial profiling and discriminatory treatment of students and residents alike," Legal Insurrection reported, adding that school administrators allegedly helped spread the resolution.

Oberlin College stopped ordering from the bakery after the protests but resumed in January 2017, the Chronicle-Telegram said, adding that the school again stopped ordering from Gibson's after the bakery filed its November 2017 lawsuit. It accused Oberlin and Raimondo of libel, tortious interference with business relationships and contracts, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and trespass, Legal Insurrection said.

The verdict

The jury on Friday found that Oberlin inflicted emotional distress, interfered with business relationships, and libeled Gibson's, the Chronicle-Telegram said, adding that Raimondo libeled the Gibson family and business.

Allyn Gibson was awarded $3 million, his son David Gibson was awarded $5.8 million, and their bakery was awarded $2.2 million, the paper said.

David Gibson testified in May that the protests "devastated" the bakery's revenue and forced staffing cuts, the Chronicle-Telegram said. David Gibson and Allyn Gibson told the court they haven't collected pay since the protests, and neither have David Gibson's wife, son and grandson, the paper added.

More from Legal Insurrection:

Roger Copeland, a retired Oberlin College professor of theater and dance, was in the courtroom and seemed ecstatic after the jury came back with their verdict. Prof. Copeland is somewhat famous in the courtroom for getting this response on a Raimondo text to co-workers after a letter-to-the editor he wrote was critical of the school for their handling of the Gibson' affair. "F*** him," Raimondo responded in a text message about Copeland. "I'd say unleash the students if I wasn't convinced this needs to be put behind us."

"I'm exhilarated by this verdict," Copeland told the outlet, which added that his wife Michele worked for Oberlin food service and testified that the school ordered her to cut Gibson's bagels and pastries for the dining halls due to student unrest.

What did Oberlin have to say?

Oberlin's attorneys and its director of communications Scott Wargo all declined to comment, the Chronicle-Telegram said, but the paper added that it obtained an email Donica Thomas Varner — vice president, general counsel, and secretary of Oberlin College — sent to Oberlin College Alumni Association members.

"We are disappointed with the verdict and regret that the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented," Varner wrote, according to the paper. "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."

Varner's email also said the jury's verdict will be reviewed, and the legal team will "determine how to move forward," the Chronicle-Telegram reported.

What did the bakery's attorneys have to say?

Owen Rarric, one of the attorneys representing the bakery, told the paper the verdicts send a strong message.

"I think part of what we did here today is answer the question as to, 'What are we going to tolerate in our society?'" Rarric noted to the Chronicle-Telegram. "We're hopeful that this is a sign that not only Oberlin College but in the future, powerful institutions will hesitate before trying to crush the little guy."

Lee Plakas, lead attorney for the Gibson family, told Legal Insurrection the case "is a national tipping point."

"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," Plakas said, according to the outlet. "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."

Legal Insurrection added that a punitive damages hearing will commence Tuesday which could add $22 million to the Gibsons.

Bakery sues Oberlin College youtu.be

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