Oberlin College’s student social-justice activism came at a high cost to a local bakery, and now the business wants Oberlin to pay.
The famously progressive Ohio college is on trial over allegations that it defamed Gibson’s Food Mart and Bakery, which became the target of mass protests, an economic boycott and accusations of racism after three black Oberlin students were arrested in November 2016 for shoplifting.
The trial, which began Thursday in Elyria, Ohio, has implications that extend beyond the reputation of a small-town doughnut shop. Also at issue is whether universities that encourage political activism should be held responsible for the harm done by overzealous student demonstrators.
“This case is significant because businesses and people on the receiving end of social justice warfare mobs rarely are able to fight back,” said Cornell Law School professor William A. Jacobson, whose Legal Insurrection blog has covered the case closely.
Lorain County Judge John R. Miraldi last month dismissed slander and deceptive-trade practices allegations against Oberlin, but he refused to dismiss the libel, business-interference and emotional-distress claims made by the bakery.
“One big issue in the trial is whether the college encouraged or participated in promoting the attacks on the bakery such that the college is legally responsible for the actions of its students, faculty and staff,” Mr. Jacobson said. “If the college is held responsible, that would set a precedent that a college cannot encourage social justice warfare, yet disclaim the damage done to innocent bystanders.”
Oberlin has argued its students, faculty and staff are protected by the First Amendment. Claims to the contrary “conflict with the obligations of higher education to protect freedom of speech on college campuses,” said Oberlin in a Monday statement.
“Colleges cannot be held liable for the independent actions of students,” said the statement. “Employers are not legally responsible for employees who express personal views on personal time. The law is clear on these issues.”
The Oberlin campus was already on edge the day after Donald Trump’s unexpected presidential victory when word spread that three black students had been arrested. One of the students, who also tried to use a fake ID to buy alcohol, was chased down, tackled and restrained by co-owner Allyn Gibson.
The three students pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in August 2017 and issued statements absolving the owners of racism, but at that point, the damage to the business had been done, thanks to student protests that the hurt sales and were allegedly conducted with the college’s support.
At one rally, Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo handed out a flyer to at least one person that called Gibson’s a “racist establishment” and urged customers to boycott. The flyer was printed on a college copy machine, and staff provided refreshments and gloves to student protesters, according to the complaint.
Victor Ortiz, an Oberlin city police officer who testified at the trial Thursday, said the protest crowd of about 200 had a “mob mentality.”
“It was a mob mentality out there,” said Officer Ortiz, as reported by Legal Insurrection’s Daniel McGraw. “People were getting flyers shoved in their faces saying Gibson’s were racist, curse words were chanted, and they chanted how this business was racist, too.”
A fixture in the Oberlin community since 1905, Gibson’s denied the racism charges, citing local police records showing that of 40 adults arrested for stealing and shoplifting at the store in the last five years, six of them were black.
The school also suspended its food-service contract with Gibson’s, although a witness at the trial Thursday said that was to avoid having students throw or stomp on the baked good in the cafeteria. The contract was resumed after a few months.
Student tour guides warned visitors not to shop there, and the Oberlin student senate passed a resolution calling for a boycott and saying the store has “a history of racial profiling and discriminatory treatment,” the complaint said.
Oberlin denied the defamation allegations. “Neither Oberlin nor Dean Raimondo defamed a local business or its owners,” said the Monday statement.
Oberlin attorney Ronald Holman said that Ms. Raimondo was merely monitoring the protests to ensure student safety and act as a community liaison.
“She had no choice but to be there,” Mr. Holman said, as reported by the Chronicle-Telegram’s Scott Mahoney.
Meanwhile, Gibson’s attorney Lee Plakas read an email in which college officials discussed asking Gibson’s to drop criminal charges in exchange for resuming bakery orders.
“Can we draft a legal agreement clearly stating that once charges are dropped, orders will resume?” said Oberlin special assistant to the president Tita Reed said in the email. “I’m baffled by their combined audacity and arrogance to assume the position of victim.”
The defamation trial, expected to continue for about a month, could also resonate with other companies — including media outlets and tech firms — that have been accused of smearing conservatives and others in the name of pushing a political agenda.
Case in point: the defamation lawsuits filed by Covington Catholic teen Nicholas Sandmann and his family against the Washington Post, CNN and NBCUniversal over the coverage of his January encounter with an older Native American activist.
“We have seen this spillover effect in many other areas, such as social media and big tech, where the former campus social justice warriors are in control of the means of communication, or are able to bully those in control,” Mr. Jacobson said. “The social justice warfare that takes place on campuses now impacts society at large.”