A jury added $33 million in punitive damages to $11 million in compensatory damages awarded to an Ohio bakery after Oberlin College libeled the family-owned shop for racial profiling.
After a shoplifting incident turned violent, a smear job – including Black Lives Matter and social justice activists on the liberal college’s staff and in its student body – launched a smear campaign on the bakery, which adversely affected its business that heavily relied on the school and its students.
Social [in]justice stopped dead in its tracks
Legal Insurrection Founder William A. Jacobson – whose conservative law blog monitored the court proceedings – noted that since 1885, Gibson’s Bakery had been an iconic fixture in downtown Oberlin, Ohio, and was popular with students and college personnel, as it was featured in the college’s dining hall menu and used for baked goods at various campus events. But after the tide turned via a social justice campaign that went amok, the attorney and Cornell Law professor was glad true justice was administered.
“Oberlin College tried to sacrifice a beloved 5th-generation bakery, its owners and its employees, at the altar of political correctness in order to appease the campus ‘social justice warfare’ mob,” Jacobson quoted himself on his blog from a statement he made about Thursday’s verdict. “The jury sent a clear message that the truth matters, and so do the reputations and lives of people targeted by false accusations – particularly when those false accusations are spread by powerful institutions. Throughout the trial, the Oberlin College defense was tone-deaf and demeaning towards the bakery and its owners, calling the bakery nearly worthless. The jury sent a message that all lives matter – including the lives of ordinary working people who did nothing wrong other than stop people from stealing.”
Turning shoplifting into a social justice nightmare
The event leading up to the lawsuit that sparked racial tensions occurred the day after President Donald Trump was elected to the White House in November 2016.
“A student tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID and shoplift from Allyn D. Gibson, David Gibson’s son,” the Chronicle-Telegram recounted. “Allyn D. Gibson followed the student out of the store, and the two got into a physical altercation. Two other students got involved, and police have said when they arrived, the three students were hitting Allyn D. Gibson while he was on the ground.”
The apprehension had everything to do with theft and nothing to do with race.
“Allyn D. Gibson is white and the students are black,” the Chronicle-Telegraph’s Bruce Walton explained. “The three students pleaded guilty in August 2017 to misdemeanor charges and read statements into the record acknowledging that Allyn D. Gibson was within his right to detain the shoplifter and that his actions were not racially motivated.”
However, when social justice activists learned about the incident, it turned into a social justice campaign against the bakery.
“But in the two days immediately after the shoplifting incident, Oberlin College students protested in front of the bakery and passed out flyers urging people to boycott the bakery, alleging the bakery had a history of racial profiling,” Walton continued. “Oberlin College stopped ordering from the bakery after the protests but resumed in January 2017. The college once again stopped ordering from Gibson’s after the lawsuit was filed in November 2017.”
Tensions flared as both sides of the debate made their arguments public – and as the mainstream media added the episode to its social justice narrative.
“The day after the arrests, hundreds of students protested outside the bakery,” The Associated Press (AP) recounted. “Members of Oberlin College’s student senate published a resolution saying Gibson’s had ‘a history of racial profiling and discriminatory treatment.’ When news of the protests spread online, bikers and counterprotesters soon converged on the town to jeer students and make purchases from Gibson’s. Conservatives derided the students on social media as coddled ‘snowflakes’ with a mob mentality, while students attacked the store as a symbol of systemic racism.”
Relief social justice was brought to justice
The bakery’s principal owner and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, David Gibson, was overwhelmed by the tens of millions awarded – which will likely be reduced once limitations are implemented. He was also relieved the whole time-consuming debacle is finally over.
“We never wanted any of this to go to court and have to spend all this time in litigation,” Gibson told Legal Insurrection. “People have no idea on how much stress this has had on our family and business for almost three years, but from the beginning, we just didn’t understand why they were punishing us for something we had nothing to do with.”
He hopes lessons will be learned through the suit.
“We appreciate that the jury understood what we had gone through, and I think they were saying to the entire country that we can’t allow this to happen to hard-working, small business people whose lives are defined by their business, their family and their community,” Gibson added.” What the college was doing was trying to take away all those things from us, and we fought hard against that.”
His father, 90-year-old Allyn W. Gibson – the patriarch of the business – is also hopeful that the case will help make it clear that the bakery is on the students’ side.
“I have been here my whole life, and I love the students and the energy they bring to our community, and people who know me know I always love being with them,” he commented, according to Legal Insurrection. “Students can be great people, or they can be bad – just like all of us can be – but they need guidance at that age, and they weren’t getting it when this all started.”
However, Oberlin College Vice President Donica Thomas Varner – who also serves as the schools’ secretary and general counsel – did not see the outcome as a learning moment.
“We are disappointed with the verdict and regret that the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented,” Varner wrote in an email obtained by the Chronicle-Telegram. “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.”
Yet those behind the bakery did not see merit in the demonstrations which were ruled as misrepresenting the facts, and father and son are just thankful they can return to a safe work environment.
“I don’t want to be afraid to even work there anymore,” David Gibson told the local daily Friday. “I just want this to send the message so that we can enjoy our community and the business that we’ve had for all these generations.”
His father agreed and looks forward to his family returning to a stress-free bakery.
“People [were too] scared to come in,” Allyn Gibson remarked, according to the paper. “It’s hard to believe it could get that way in a small town.”