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Lessons Learned from the Gibson’s Bakery Case
On August 30, the Ohio Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the Ohio Court of Appeals in the case of Gibson’s Bakery vs Oberlin College, thereby ending a defamation lawsuit that lasted six years and involved what can happen when “private persons” are wrongfully accused of being “racist.” There are many lessons to be learned from this case but let’s focus on just one.
Oberlin College is a private liberal arts college located in Oberlin, Ohio, a town of 8,000 people, half of whom are either students or employees of the college. Tuition at Oberlin is in excess of $70,000 per year; most of the students there are from white, wealthy backgrounds. Gibson’s Bakery is a bakery in Oberlin that has been in business for 130 years. It has been a family-run business involving five generations of the Gibson family. Its existence is largely dependent on the students and faculty of Oberlin College.
In November 2016, there was a shoplifting incident in the bakery that resulted in the arrest of three Black students attending Oberlin. Accusations that the incident was racially motivated by the bakery started immediately after the arrests, with ongoing demonstrations outside the bakery and a refusal by Oberlin College to do further business with the bakery. These accusations included comments by the Dean of Students, Meredith Raimond, who stated as a fact that the bakery was a racist establishment with a long history of racial profiling. Students were encouraged to attend the demonstrations and were given class credits if they did attend. I don’t have space here to discuss all background facts in detail but if interested, read the Ohio Ninth Court of Appeals decision at www.supremecourt.ohio.gov. As a result of the actions of the Oberlin College faculty, the bakery suffered significant losses over the next three years. Eventually, Gibson’s Bakery sued Oberlin for defamation and other torts relating to the controversy.
The case was tried by a jury in 2019 and the trial lasted six weeks. During the trial, there was substantial evidence introduced that the bakery personnel were not motivated by racial prejudices; for example, of the 20 persons arrested for shoplifting in the past 5 years at the bakery, only four arrestees were Black. At the end of the trial, the jury returned a compensatory damage verdict of $11,000,000 and a punitive damage verdict of $33,000,000. These damages were subsequently reduced to a net verdict of $25,000,000 plus an award in excess of $6,000,000 in attorney fees against Oberlin. On appeal, Oberlin claimed that by accusing the bakery of being racist, the Dean of Students and other Oberlin faculty were merely exercising their right to freedom of speech.
The Ohio Court of Appeals disagreed that these statements and actions by Oberlin faculty were mere expressions of opinion protected by the First Amendment. Instead, the Court affirmed the trial court’s findings that the accusations of racial prejudice were false statements of fact rendered with reckless disregard for the truth. And the ultimate lesson to be learned here? There are actually a few restrictions on “free speech”; you can’t always say whatever you want without consequences, and that includes making false statements about persons who are “private persons,” meaning persons who are not politicians, movie stars or others who have intentionally thrust themselves into the public limelight. These “private persons”—people who put their heads down, go to work every day, take care of their families and live decent lives– have a right to not be falsely accused.
Note: During the litigation, Oberlin offered to restore business with the bakery if the bakery would agree not to prosecute any students caught shoplifting in the bakery for the first time. Think about that proposal—if you are an Oberlin student, you can shoplift at Gibson’s until you get caught and then you get a free ride the first time caught. How’s that for a character-building college education!
■ Bill Hoagland has practiced law in Alton for more than 50 years, but he has spent more than 70 years hunting, fishing and generally being in the great outdoors. His wife, Annie, shares his love of the outdoor life. Much of their spare time is spent on their farm in Calhoun County. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.