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Progressive Oberlin College loses in appeals court, must pay record $31 million to bakery over false racism accusations

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Chris Ryan via Getty Images

Progressive Oberlin College lost a huge case in appeals court last week that forced the school to pay $31 million to a bakery, which it falsely accused of carrying out racist actions in a 2016 incident.

Gibson's Bakery – a 135-year-old family business near the campus of Oberlin College – was the site of an unfortunate incident. The owner's son allegedly confronted three black Oberlin students who attempted to shoplift bottles of wine. According to the police report, one of the suspects assaulted a store employee when confronted about the stolen wine.

The three students pleaded guilty to attempted theft and aggravated trespassing, and "said in statements required by a plea agreement that their actions were wrong and that the store wasn't racist," according to CBS News.

Following the incident, the Oberlin College student senate passed a resolution claiming that the bakery "has a history of racial profiling and discriminatory treatment of students and residents alike," despite any evidence. The senate called for student to "immediately cease all support, financial and otherwise, of Gibson's" and called upon Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov to publicly condemn the bakery.

The bakery launched a lawsuit in 2017, in which they asserted that the campaign launched by the small liberal arts college in northern Ohio was not only unfounded, but crippled their business.

In 2019, Lorain County Judge John Miraldi ordered Oberlin to pay the bakery over $40 million in damages. The figure was later reduced to $25 million, plus $6.2 million for the bakery's lawyer fees.

The award is the largest defamation verdict in Ohio history, according to the Washington Examiner.

On Thursday, Ohio's Ninth District Court of Appeals upheld the previous court decision and ruled that Oberlin College must pay more than $31 million to Gibson's Bakery.

The decision cited "the active role that Oberlin played in the publication of the Senate Resolution" that demanded a boycott of the bakery, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"At trial, it was absolutely clear to the jury (as reflected by the verdict) that there was not a shred of truth in the vicious statements about the Gibsons and that the College caused the devastating harm," the law firm representing the Gibson family proclaimed. "The truth prevailed."

An Oberlin spokesperson issued a statement to Legal Insurrection saying that the school was "obviously disappointed that the appeals court affirmed the judgment in its ruling earlier today."

"We are reviewing the court’s opinion carefully as we evaluate our options and determine next steps," the spokesperson added.

"In the meantime, we recognize that the issues raised by this case have been challenging, not only for the parties involved in the lawsuit, but for the entire Oberlin community," said Oberlin Director of Media Relations Scott Wargo. "We remain committed to strengthening the partnership between the College, the City of Oberlin and its residents, and the downtown business community. We will continue in that important work while remaining focused on our core educational mission."

Oberlin College has an annual tuition of nearly $60,000.

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