Oberlin Helped Students Defame a Bakery, a Jury Says. The Punishment: $33 Million.

Protests over cultural sensitivity have long been a staple at Oberlin College, a liberal arts school tucked into the cornfields of Ohio, where students have spoken out about everything from microaggressions to the cultural appropriation of sushi.

Now some of those protests have put the college on the hook for tens of millions of dollars. Gibson’s bakery, a local establishment known for its whole wheat doughnuts and chocolate-covered grapes, became the target of a boycott by students who accused it of racially profiling a black student.

A jury found that the college and its dean of students had defamed the business by siding with the protesters. This week, the jury awarded the bakery $ 33 million in punitive damages, on top of the $ 11 million in compensatory damages awarded the week prior.

The case raised questions about the degree to which colleges should get involved with the political actions of its students and its employees. Oberlin maintained that college officials had gotten involved only to keep the peace, and that it was supporting its students, not their claims that Gibson’s was racist. But the jury found that Oberlin had clearly chosen sides without first examining the facts.

“The message to other colleges is to have the intestinal fortitude to be the adult in the room,” Lee Plakas, the trial lawyer for Gibson’s, said on Friday.

In an email to the Oberlin community on Friday, Carmen Twillie Ambar, the college president, said that the case was far from over, and that “none of this will sway us from our core values.”

Oberlin tried to distance itself from the protesters in court papers, saying it should not be held responsible for their actions. It blamed the store for bringing its problems on itself.

“Gibson bakery’s archaic chase-and-detain policy regarding suspected shoplifters was the catalyst for the protests,” the college said. “The guilt or innocence of the students is irrelevant to both the root cause of the protests and this litigation.”

The dispute began on Nov. 9, 2016, when an Oberlin student tried to pay for a bottle of wine with a fake ID, and the store clerk noticed that the student had hidden two more bottles of wine under his coat, according to court papers.

The clerk, Allyn D. Gibson, a son and a grandson of the owners, chased the student out onto the street and tackled him, according to some witnesses, and two friends of the student, also students at Oberlin, joined in the scuffle. The bakery prosecuted the students, who are African-American and who pleaded guilty to various charges.

The next day, hundreds of students and others gathered in the park across the street from the general store to protest the arrests. The Gibsons accused the college; its dean of students, Meredith Raimondo; and others of actively supporting the protesters. Oberlin officials bought them pizza, authorized the use of student funds to pay for gloves for the cold weather and helped them to hand out fliers urging a boycott of the store, according to court papers.

For just over two months, the college suspended its purchase of baked goods from Gibson’s for the college dining halls. The college said that it suspended buying from Gibson’s in an effort to de-escalate the protests. The store said that the suspension had sent a message to the community that the college believed the store was racist, and that people had stopped shopping there, or went in through a back door, because they did not want to be associated with it.

Though the college resumed buying from Gibson’s it refused to issue an apology, and Gibson’s said its business continued to suffer.

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Lee Plakas, in the foreground, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case, the Gibson family, with his clients.CreditBruce Bishop/Chronicle-Telegram via Associated Press

The bakery’s complaint said Dr. Raimondo, had helped hand out fliers saying: “Don’t Buy. This is a racist establishment with a long account of racial profiling and discrimination.”

But the college and the police had no record of prior complaints about racial profiling, the complaint said. Rather, local merchants suffered from students shoplifting, according to court papers, and a college publication had written about how shoplifting was a rite of passage.

In its defense, Oberlin maintained that it was not liable for the actions and personal opinions of its students and its employees, and that it had no duty to speak on behalf of the general store.

Allyn Gibson, the 32-year-old store clerk, was trained in martial arts, according to Oberlin’s court papers, and his decision to chase down and tackle a student “beyond the borders of their store and into full public view of their customer base” opened him and the store up to public criticism.

Dr. Raimondo, and the special assistant to the president, Tita Reed, were dispatched to the protests just to maintain order, the college said, and not to take sides. They “should be commended for preventing the protests from turning violent, especially when counterprotesters showed up on motorcycles wearing sidearms,” Oberlin’s court papers said.

Neither the college nor the dean ever said or wrote anything defamatory about the plaintiffs, the college said. In fact, it added, there was a split in opinion within the college community as to whether the Gibsons were racist or not, and it was their constitutional right to express their opinions on that score.

Providing refreshments and gloves, the college said, did not amount to aiding and abetting the protests.

But the jury was convinced that the college had taken sides, and had played an active role in defaming and hurting a local business.

“Just because your fellow student has been arrested, that doesn’t automatically make it invalid,” Mr. Plakas said on Friday. “It can’t always be about your tribe. It’s good to root for your team at the baseball field or the football stadium. But that’s not how the world is.”

Kameron Dunbar, who just graduated from Oberlin, said he supported the stand that the college had taken. He served on the student senate during the protests and participated in them.

“Part of the narrative that has been built up is that Oberlin’s administration weaponized students against Gibson’s out of malice,” he said. “I find that concept to be pretty insulting. We’re autonomous.”

Mr. Dunbar said he and his friends had a lot of respect for the town and its residents. They frequented the local bar, shopped at the vintage clothes store and patronized a recently opened tattoo shop.

Education officials at other schools said the case was unique. “This is a fact-specific case,” said Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel of the American Council on Education, a trade and advocacy group for university presidents. “It is premature to draw conclusions about broader ramifications for other campuses and all of higher education.”

The punitive damages are likely to be reduced to $ 22 million because state law caps the amount at twice the compensatory damages. Still, the total judgment of $ 33 million could be a financial blow to Oberlin.

The bakery, founded in 1885 as a pushcart, has posted a message on its website: “Thank you for all the kind words of support. The Gibson Family.”

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