- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Oberlin College announced that it will appeal the $31.5 million jury award to Gibson’s Bakery over student protests targeting the business, arguing that the verdict sets a “troubling free speech precedent.”

In a statement, the college said the Oberlin College Board of Trustees voted Tuesday to appeal the June verdict, which held the school and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo liable for the protests, which the college maintained were “organized independently by students.”

The board, which filed a notice of appeal Tuesday in Ohio state court, also said it has hired a team of First Amendment attorneys based in Cleveland and Washington, D.C., including Lee Levine and Seth Berlin of the national office of Ballard Spahr.

“The verdict and judgment in this case set a precedent that endangers free speech on campuses and for all Americans,” Mr. Levine said in a statement. “The jury was allowed to award substantial damages for speech that is protected by the Constitution. The case should absolutely be reviewed by an appellate court.”

Oberlin has decried the award as an attack on student free speech, while the Gibson’s legal team has argued that school administrators helped spread student statements, including flyers and a student government resolution, accusing the bakery of racism.

Lee Platkas, attorney for the Gibson family, said that “the law and the facts of this case remain clearly on the side of the Gibson family,” despite efforts by Oberlin officials to “reframe this as a First Amendment issue.”

“The jury’s verdict sent a clear message that institutions like Oberlin College should not be permitted to bully others while hiding behind the claimed shield of free speech,” Mr. Platkas said in a statement. “There are no exemptions from the law of defamation – a fact we trust will be confirmed during the appeal process.”

Student protests accusing the bakery of racial profiling erupted after the Nov. 9, 2016, arrest of three black students after one was chased down and detained by Allyn Gibson. The students later pleaded guilty to attempted theft and aggravated trespass, and issued a statement absolving the Gibsons of racism.

An attorney for Oberlin said the trial court committed procedural errors that “prevented jurors from hearing information about the original incident.”

The jury awarded the Gibsons $11 million in compensatory damages and $33 million in punitive damages, but the award was later reduced under Ohio’s tort cap to about $25 million. The Gibsons were also awarded $6.5 million in legal fees.

Oberlin board chairman Chris Canavan said the famously liberal college has focused on “bridging divides between the community in our community and pursuing academic excellence.”

“The College and the town of Oberlin have been vital to one another since 1833, and we value our long-term relationships with the town’s citizens and businesses,” Mr. Canavan said. “We also have a mission to support free inquiry, allow faculty and students to ask difficult questions and to reach and express their own conclusions. The judgment in this case effectively punishes us for doing just that.”

Mr. Canavan, former director of Global Policy Development for the Soros Management Fund, said the decision to appeal was “grounded in the board’s fiduciary responsibility to the College’s long-term financial health.”

Shortly after the protests began, Oberlin suspended its business relationship with Gibson’s and prohibited the purchase of the bakery’s products with college funds before resuming business on Jan. 30, 2017.

Student flyers accused the bakery, a fixture in Oberlin since 1885, of being a “RACIST establishment” with a “LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION,” a sentiment echoed in a Facebook post by the then-head of the Department of African Studies.

“Very Very proud of our students! Gibson’s has been bad for decades, their dislike for Black people is palpable,” said the post dated Nov. 12, 2016. Their food is rotten and they profile Black students. NO MORE!”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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