Oberlin College Racial Dispute

Pedestrians pass the storefront of Gibson’s Bakery in Oberlin. 

Oberlin College’s board of trustees has voted to appeal the jury verdict that held it and the college’s dean of students liable for a protest organized by students, according to a release from the college.

The Gibson’s Bakery case made national headlines when a jury awarded the plaintiffs a total of $44 million in damages.

Attorneys representing the college filed a Notice of Appeal Oct. 8 appealing the case to the 9th District Court of Appeals in Akron.

“The decision is grounded in the board’s fiduciary responsibility to the college’s long-term financial health,” board chairman Chris Canavan stated in the release. Left standing, the verdict could also set a troubling precedent for those institutions, like Oberlin, that are committed to respecting free speech, he said.

The college will continue to support the Oberlin business community, Canavan said.

The college has assembled an appellate legal team to take on the many dimensions of this case, he said.

The lawsuit, which named the college and Meredith Raimondo, vice president and dean of students, as defendants, stemmed from a Nov. 9, 2016, shoplifting incident and fight at the Oberlin bakery that involved three African-American Oberlin College students and Allyn D. Gibson, a white store clerk. The incident sparked protests, which included disseminating flyers.

Judge John R. Miraldi reduced the damages, saying owner David Gibson should receive $14 million in compensatory and punitive damages, his father and family patriarch Allyn Gibson $6.5 million, and their Oberlin business, Gibson’s Bakery, $4.5 million, The Associated Press reported in June.

Since the verdict, the college made a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or requesting the judge overrule the jury’s verdict and requested a new trial.

The team includes First Amendment attorneys Lee Levine and Seth Berlin from the Washington, D.C., office of the national law firm Ballard Spahr and appellate attorneys Benjamin Sassé and Irene Keyse-Walker from the Cleveland office of the national law firm Tucker Ellis. These attorneys will work with trial counsel from Taft Stettinius & Hollister of Cleveland and from Wickens Herzer Panza of Avon to address the intersection of defamation law, First Amendment principles, and Ohio tort reform doctrines this case raises.

Gibson’s lead lawyer was Lee Plakas of Tzangas, Plakas, Mannos LTD in Akron.

Plakas characterized the case as a libel case.

He said Oberlin administrators hoped to deflect attention from the college’s problems with African-American students by backing students regarding Gibson’s Bakery.

"Given the repeated attempts by Oberlin College to discount the jury’s verdict, their decision to appeal comes as no surprise," Plakas said in an emailed statement Oct. 8. "But despite the college’s attempt to reframe this as a First Amendment issue, the law and the facts of this case remain clearly on the side of the Gibson family. The law and the jury’s verdict both remind our country that claimed free speech has its limits, even on a college campus.
 
"The jury’s verdict sent a clear message that institutions like Oberlin College should not be permitted to bully others while hiding behind the claimed shield of free speech," he said. "There are no exemptions from the law of defamation – a fact we trust will be confirmed during the appeal process."

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