An Ohio jury awarded a local bakery $33 million in punitive damages, on top of $11 million in compensation, because college officials were involved in student protests that accused the store of racism in a shoplifting incident.
Oberlin is one the oldest coeducational liberal arts college in the US, founded in 1833. Gibson’s Bakery, established in 1885, is a family business that has long supplied the campus.
Shortly after the US presidential election in 2016, however, the store caught three African-American students shoplifting, and pressed charges. Oberlin students, long known for social justice activism, responded by accusing the store of a “long history of racial profiling and discrimination.” It wasn’t just the students, though – witnesses observed Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo handing out protest flyers at a demonstration outside the bakery.
The Gibsons fought back by filing a libel lawsuit, pointing to Raimondo’s involvement as proof that the college was engaged in tortious interference with their business. The jury agreed, first imposing a $11 million compensation last week, and then another $33.2 million in penalties on Thursday.
“I appreciate from the jury that they took care of this Goliath. That took a lot of guts on their part,” David Gibson, owner and lead plaintiff, said in court. “They made it so that we have a chance and an opportunity to keep the lights on… for another generation.”
The three students involved in the incident have all pleaded guilty to shoplifting and aggravated trespass, and explicitly stated in their plea that Gibson’s did not engage in racial profiling.
Oberlin’s lawyers argued the college could not be held liable for the “independent actions” of students, and that Raimondo acted out of obligation to protect the students’ freedom of speech. The college’s vice-president and general counsel, Donica Thomas Varner, repeated the claim in last week’s blast email to alumni, which the jury was instructed to disregard.
The college’s lawyers argued that significant punitive damages would harm students, as Oberlin is “cash poor” despite charging full-time students over $70,000 a year. Ohio laws limit punitive damages to twice that of compensation, so Oberlin will likely see the judgment reduced somewhat, but it is still looking at paying Gibson’s at least $33 million, as well as their attorney’s fees.
Oberlin’s president, Carmen Twillie Ambar, responded to the verdict by vowing that “none of this will sway us from our core values,” which the college openly says include “diversity and social justice.”
The case “will not distract, deter, or materially harm our educational mission, for today’s students or for generations to come,” Ambar wrote in a letter to the alumni.
Once best known as a reputable music conservatory, Oberlin has become associated with social justice protests over the past decade. In 2015, students protested the “cultural appropriation” at the campus dining hall, which ended up attracting the attention of alum and actress Lena Dunham.The following year, a professor was fired after blaming both the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in France and the existence of Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS) terrorist group on Israel.
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