Ohio’s Supreme Court on Tuesday sided with Gibson’s Bakery in its libel case against Oberlin College, declining to hear the school’s appeal and permitting the family-owned establishment to collect over $36 million in damages.
The litigation against Oberlin and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo stemmed from uncorroborated accusations of racism that the Gibson family believes initially cost their store half its patronage. In June 2019, a Lorain County court ordered the school to pay the bakers $32 million. About $4.5 million in interest has accumulated since that ruling.
A three-judge panel of the Ohio Ninth District Court of Appeals upheld the decision this spring. Oberlin appealed to the state’s high court which delayed compelling the college to pay until the appeal was decided.
Republican Justices Maureen O’Connor, Pat DeWine, Pat Fischer and Sharon Kennedy found in favor of Gibsons. Democratic Justices Michael Donnelly, Melody Stewart and Jennifer Brunner dissented. The nonprofit Legal Insurrection, which took the case on the bakeshop’s behalf, applauded the decision.
“On behalf of the Gibson family and the trial team, Truth Still Matters, David can still overcome Goliath,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Lee Plakas said in a statement. “We and the Gibson family are gratified that all judges on the court of appeals and the majority of the Ohio Supreme Court recognized the rights of individuals rather than the bullying tactics of the big institutions.”
The matter arose on November 9, 2016, when Allyn Gibson, the son of bakery proprietor David Gibson, stopped three black Oberlin students, having observed one of them attempting to buy wine with a fake ID and trying to shoplift two other bottles. The younger Gibson held up his phone to take a picture of the shoplifter but the young man struck Gibson in the face.
David Gibson, who witnessed the event, saw Allyn chase the offender out of the store and capture him in his arms until police arrived to arrest the student. The officers observed “several abrasions and minor injuries” on Allyn, “including what appeared to be a swollen lip, abrasions to his arm and wrists and a small cut on his neck.” The student would eventually plead guilty to attempted theft.
Nevertheless, more than 100 Oberlin attendees protested outside the bakeshop soon after hearing about the arrest, smearing the Gibsons as “racist” and denying the shoplifter’s culpability. Some observers attributed much of the progressive college students’ ire to the fact that Donald Trump won the presidential election the day before the incident.
Witnesses to the demonstration reported seeing an Oberlin administrator handing out flyers alleging the bakery was “a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.” (Caps in the original.) The school used its own funds to support the protest by ordering food for the participants and reimbursing them for the cost of gloves to keep warm. Though Oberlin ordered bagels and donuts daily from Gibson’s prior to the arrest, the college cancelled the orders subsequently.
The school defended its administrators’ and students’ actions on free-expression grounds. Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar has alluded without evidence to a “perception by faculty and students and staff and other people in the [city of Oberlin] that there have [sic] been disparate treatment with respect to people of color in the store.”
The college expressed disappointment that the state supreme court refused to hear its appeal.
“The issues raised by this case have been challenging, not only for the parties involved, but for the entire Oberlin community,” Oberlin’s communications office stated. “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.”
David Gibson died of pancreatic cancer in 2019. His loved ones who now run the bakery acclaimed the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in their favor.
“Oberlin tried to frame this case with claims and issues that weren’t on trial. This has never been a case about a student’s First Amendment rights,” the family said in a statement. “Individuals’ reputations should never be sacrificed at a false altar of free speech. The Gibsons and the entire State of Ohio should appreciate that the jury, a unanimous Ninth District Court of Appeals, and a majority of the justices on the Ohio Supreme Court recognized that the deplorable conduct of Oberlin College could not be camouflaged by misleading claims of free speech.”
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