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How Oberlin College Faculty Tried to Destroy a Small Business for Imaginary Crimes

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What started as a relatively obscure trial covered only by alternative conservative media has exploded into a Big Story, a modern David-defeats-Goliath tale in which a small business has won a victory in court against a well-heeled college whose leftist activist administrators and students tried to destroy it for no good reason. Not surprisingly, the progressive establishment already has tried to walk back the verdict and portray it as a loss for free speech.

(One should not forget that the same progressive establishment that regularly declares that anything other than “woke” speech actually is violence that the authorities must suppress, now has discovered the virtues of the First Amendment.)

Loraine County, Ohio, jurors levied a $33 million verdict against Oberlin College for its role in protests that pretty much ruined a long-time business in the town of Oberlin after students went on a rampage following the shoplifting arrest of a black Oberlin student in November, 2016.

Anyone familiar with the left-wing madness that infects many colleges and universities knows about Oberlin College, a selective institution in Oberlin, Ohio, that is famous for its uber-politically correct students that seem to fall for one “hate crime” hoax after another. It was Oberlin that canceled classes after a student claimed to have seen someone from the Ku Klux Klan menacing the campus one evening in 2013. The alleged Klansman turned out to be most likely a woman wearing a blanket to ward off cold temperature.

That same Oberlin College was roiled by a series of alleged “hate crimes” in 2013 that supposedly were so upsetting to the students that even the New York Times weighed in. In the end, there were no Klansmen on campus, no secret racists trying to destroy campus unity, just a couple of activist progressive students supposedly trying to “increase awareness” of racism, homophobia, and other such things allegedly on campus. Michelle Malkin, a conservative columnist and an Oberlin graduate writes :

According to police reports published by Chuck Ross of The Daily Caller News Foundation this week, two students had ’fessed up to most of the incidents (and fellow students suspect they are responsible for all of them). The Oberlin Police Department identified the hoaxers as Dylan Bleier (a student worker bee for President Obama’s Organizing for Action and a member of the Oberlin College Democrats) and Matthew Alden. Bleier told police the pair posted inflammatory signs and a Nazi flag around campus to “joke” and “troll” their peers.

Investigators “caught them red-handed” trying to circulate anti-Muslim fliers, and a search of Bleier’s email confirmed he had used a fake account to harass a female student. Cops told Oberlin President Marvin Krislov, but he failed to pursue any criminal action. The two students were removed from campus before the bogus “KKK” brouhaha and news-making shutdown.

Then there was the 2015 incident in which Oberlin students insisted that the food served to them in the college cafeteria be purged of its “cultural appropriation,” as they objected to being served tacos and sushi, along with other ethnic foods that apparently reminded students of the horrors of colonialism. (Yes, the New York Times covered this story, too.)

If the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president set off waves of angst among progressives, the political tremors turned into a major earthquake at Oberlin, where many students apparently were beside themselves in their grief. The day after the election, November 9, 2016, an African-American student tried to steal two bottles of wine from a local baker and grocery company, Gibson’s Food Market Bakery, a small business that had served the community since 1885, and which had a long business relationship with the college. One of the store’s owners confronted the student, and the encounter ended with the owner on the ground with the student and two female accomplices (also black) kicking and punching him, according to the police report. (The students later pleaded guilty of misdemeanors and publicly stated that Gibson’s had not racially profiled them.)

It didn’t take long for the Oberlin students, already looking for something to protest, to act. David French of National Review writes what happened next:

…students immediately organized a protest of the bakery, publishing and distributing flyers that claimed it was “a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION,” and that a member of the Oberlin community “was assaulted” by its owner. Evidence indicated that university officials helped publish and distribute the flyer, including by disseminating it to media.

This was but the beginning of the bakery’s ordeal. The student senate issued a resolution stating that Gibson’s had a history of “racial profiling” and “discriminatory treatment,” and the resolution was posted on campus for “a period of at least one year.” The head of Oberlin’s Department of Africana Studies published a Facebook post declaring that Gibson’s had “been bad for decades” and that “their dislike for black people is palpable.” He said, “Their food is rotten and they profile black students.” Then, from November 14, 2016, through January 30, 2017, the college suspended all business with Gibson’s.

Hundreds of Oberlin students mobbed the entrance of the business, screaming obscenities at anyone who dared enter the store, and loudly accusing the company and its employees of the worst kind of racial misconduct. Even when local black citizens — including a black Oberlin College employee — told students that Gibson’s was not a “racist enterprise,” the students refused to back off.

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At that point, had it simply been a student-led protest with no official college involvement, this would have been a free-speech case and it is doubtful that Gibson’s could have taken any legal action against Oberlin College. However, both Oberlin administrators and faculty joined in the fray, as the dean of students Meredith Raimondo not only helped lead the demonstrations, but also handed out flyers claiming that Gibson’s was historically racist to black Oberlin students and regularly engaged in racial profiling. Other Oberlin administrators also publicly supported the students and the college permitted the protesters to use Oberlin facilities and publishing equipment to further their actions.

The ugly confrontations occurred for several days, and some Gibson’s employees claimed that someone had slashed their tires, although police did not arrest any suspects and could not tie students to those incidents. Another incident could have turned even worse, as one of the bakery’s owners, 90-year-old Allyn Gibson was badly injured. According to the blog Legal Insurrection:

He (Allyn Gibson) told the jury how his physical problems happened that have pushed him out of working at the bakery.

About 6 months after the protest, Allyn W. Gibson heard a banging on his first-floor apartment window at about midnight. He woke up, and then went out into the parking lot and saw a car with two people inside and its headlights on. Mr. Gibson said it was unusual for a car to be parked there at that time of night with the car running and the lights on. He testified that he didn’t recognize the people in the car or the car itself.

He decided to go inside and call the police, but fell in his doorway as he tried to do so and broke three vertebrae in his neck. He said people in the car didn’t get out to help him, and the car left as he lay on the concrete, with limited movement: “The pain was so much I couldn’t reach the cell phone for about 20 minutes.”

The reasons this testimony is being permitted is that several witnesses — those who worked at Gibson’s around the time of the protest and in the months directly afterwards — have testified they had had their tires slashed while they worked after the protest, people making nasty comments to them after they left work, and a general feeling of unease that some students seemed to feel toward them and the bakery.

But there was no evidence that anyone associated with the protest or people that supported the protesters was in any way responsible for Mr. Gibson’s accident. Nothing was stolen from his apartment, and the police have never identified who was in the car parked outside his apartment that night.

No one officially alleged Oberlin students were involved in these incidents, but it also was clear that by giving aid that was more than just moral support, the college administrators gave the impression that Oberlin College was officially trying to destroy the business and that members of the Gibson family were open targets. Legal Insurrection presented this email exchange among some administration officials:

…did bad personal feelings — an ill will toward the bakery/convenience store that had been doing business in the city since 1885 — come into play at all when the college decided to cut off ties with the small business as a bagel, donut and pizza dough food provider for the school cafeterias for the 2,800 students?

The plaintiffs’ lawyers had plenty of examples of what they told the jury was “personal beliefs overshadowing professional responsibility.” In one email, Ben Jones, the vice president of communications for the school wrote to his co-executives in the school administration that, “I love how these Gibson supporters accuse us of making rash assumption decisions, but are totally blind to their own assumptions … all these idiots complain about the college.”

He closed with, “F[--]k-em … they’ve made their own bed now.”

When Roger Copeland, an Oberlin College professor of theater and dance (he is “emeritus” status now) wrote a letter to the campus newspaper soon after the protests ended, and criticized how the school was treating Gibson’s in the letter, Jones sent a text message in caps saying, “F[--]K ROGER COPELAND.”

“F[--]k him,” Raimondo responded in a message. “I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us. (Emphasis mine)

For the accusations to be actionable against Oberlin College, the Gibson family had to demonstrate that the college did more than just protect the First Amendment rights of the protesting students, as the college claimed in its defense. The Gibsons also had to show in court that the college itself was trying to destroy the business and that the protests, as opposed to being spontaneous action by outraged students, were directed at least in part by college officials, and jurors apparently agreed with the plaintiffs.

Oberlin’s defense not only failed to convince jurors that the college was just protecting the First Amendment, but the college’s leadership came off as being arrogant and presumptive. One of the “expert” witnesses for the defense, accountant Sean Saari, agreed that the protests and their aftermath had severely damaged the value of Gibson’s, but added that the business wasn’t worth much money, anyway.

According to Saari, Gibson’s value amounted only to about $35,000, or less than the cost of attending Oberlin for one semester. Even though the business had been in Oberlin for nearly 135 years and had financially supported not only a family but also a number of employees, Saari told the court that long life really didn’t mean very much. Legal Insurrection reports:

“I wouldn’t equate longevity with success,” Saari told the jury. “The actual recent numbers show that it is not a successful business.” But then he also added, “It is just more of an indication of permanent damage [to the business].”

Thus, Oberlin’s “expert” witness made things worse, as the plaintiff’s economic “expert” showed jurors that the business was doing well just before the protests began, and that this event really did damage the long-term prospects for Gibson’s. The plaintiffs demonstrated in testimony that they had to lay off employees and that family members worked without salary to keep the enterprise afloat.

In the end, it became clear that the leadership and the students at Oberlin College live in a very different world than that of their not-as-wealthy neighbors, and when the inevitable culture clash exploded, Oberlin’s administrators came off as arrogant, calculated, and totally clueless as how others had to make a living. One of the original Oberlin College responses to the filing of the lawsuit in 2017 further demonstrates the real cultural divide that exists between the “woke” activists living in the bubble of higher education and others who occupy very different worlds.

Recall that the original incident involved a student attempting to steal two bottles of wine from Gibson’s which led to the confrontation between a store owner and the student, with that student and his two friends ultimately pleading guilty not only to stealing but physically attacking the owner. There was little disagreement, at least in court, as to what happened. However, Oberlin College’s response claimed that the real perpetrators worked for Gibson’s and that the students were innocent victims:

By filing this lawsuit, Plaintiffs regrettably are attempting to profit from a divisive and polarizing event that impacted Oberlin College (“the College”), its students, and the Oberlin community. Indeed, the Complaint is fraught with allegations all designed to portray Plaintiffs as victims who were wrongfully targeted by Defendants when in fact community members protested the violent physical assault by Allyn D. Gibson on unarmed Oberlin students. Defendants never acted wrongfully or unlawfully, and never targeted or caused any harm to Plaintiffs. Defendants’ sole concern has at all times been for the safety and well-being of students and the community. All of the claims in Plaintiffs’ Complaint lack legal and factual merit. As a result, Defendants will vigorously defend this ill-advised and unfortunate lawsuit.

The response continued:

By commencing this legal action, however, Plaintiffs seek to personally profit from a polarizing event that negatively impacted Oberlin College, its students, and the Oberlin community. Thus, not surprisingly, the Complaint contains a smorgasbord of allegations all designed to falsely portray Plaintiffs as innocent victims. The actual facts do not bear this out. In reality, it was an employee of Gibson’s Bakery and a relative of the individual plaintiffs, Allyn D. Gibson, who left the safety of his business to violently physically assault an unarmed student .

Given that the students charged not only pled guilty but also stated in court documents that Gibson’s actions were not race-related, the college’s response to the lawsuit seem to be unjustified and its allegations untrue. That has not stopped some people from defending the college of wrongdoing, however. Floyd Abrams, a well-known First Amendment lawyer and strong free speech advocate, wrote in the New York Times that the jury’s decision imperiled free speech on campus, arguing that

…the notion that uninhibited student speech can lead to vast financial liability for the universities at which it occurs threatens both the viability of educational institutions and ultimately the free speech of their students.

Loyola Marymount University professor Evan Gerstmann, writing in Forbes, declares that the verdict is a direct threat to higher education and called for the courts to overturn the verdict. Although Gerstmann admits that Oberlin students and employees rushed to judgment and that the protests might have been ill-advised, he adds:

So, Oberlin is far from perfect. But to punish a college for not reining in its students, administrators, and faculty even when they are not speaking on the college’s behalf represents an extraordinary threat to academic freedom and to freedom of speech.

Whether Gerstmann’s statement is a stretch is up for opinion. With the Oberlin Student Senate passing a resolution calling Gibson’s business “racist” and urging its boycott, and the college going along with it, and also with Oberlin’s cutting off business ties with Gibson’s, it seems that the matter moved past just free speech and into another realm. It is one thing for students and employees of the college to state personal beliefs regarding a business enterprise, but quite another for the college to take an official or quasi-official stand against a company, make questionable claims of racism, call for the business to be closed, and then turn loose an angry student mob on the business and the family that owned it. Furthermore, as pointed out earlier, in one of her emails, dean of students Raimondo indicated that she could “unleash the students” in a context of having them engage in protests.

With at least one plaintiff’s witness (a black employee at Gibson’s) testifying that Raimondo seemed to be leading one of the protests (and she admitted under oath to handing out flyers that demanded a boycott of Gibson’s because it was a “racist establishment with a long account of racial profiling and discrimination”), it was clear she wasn’t just an observer, as she claimed. Moreover, Raimondo was not just any employee at Oberlin College, but a key administrator who helped make policies for the institution.

In short, the situation involved more than Oberlin College students engaging in spontaneous protests. Even if what they said about Gibson’s was false, students are free to allege whatever they wish, and Ohio libel law protects that right to protest. Even the plaintiffs admitted to such. However, the evidence presented to jurors seems to have well-established that college officials did more than just publicly agree with the students; the college used its facilities and communications equipment to aid the protesters and even to join them. Furthermore, it also is clear that the college administration did not respect the speech of college faculty and staff that disagreed with the protesters, creating a “free speech for me, but not for thee” situation that undermined its alleged support for freedom of speech.

How the appellate courts will handle Oberlin College’s sure appeal is anyone’s guess. One would think, at least from the evidence presented in court, that the claim of suppression of free speech is overblown, given Oberlin officials had more than just protest in mind. They wanted Gibson’s to be destroyed and were willing to do what was necessary to accomplish their goal. That this was a town landmark and that the livelihoods of real people were involved mattered not a whit to the progressives at Oberlin. Students and administrators acted maliciously, and it seems they crossed the line from free speech to something much worse.

William L. Anderson is a professor of economics at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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