Oberlin hires Georgetown law prof. in effort to appeal $25 million defamation ruling
- Oberlin College announced it will appeal a court's ruling that it pay $25 million to a local family-owned bakery.
- The suit stems from a 2016 shoplifting incident involving minority students, who have since admitted guilt.
- Following the incident, the bakery was labeled as "racist" in what the bakery alleged was an attempt by the college to defame the local business.
Oberlin College in Ohio announced Thursday that it plans to appeal a court's ruling that it pay $25 million resulting from a case alleging it defamed the local family-owned business, Gibson's Bakery.
The college said in a news release that it has hired two Washington, D.C. attorneys, one of whom is an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University, to help in its effort to appeal the decision, a choice that Oberlin College Board of Trustees President Chris Canavan said is "grounded in the board’s fiduciary responsibility to the College’s long-term financial health."
The college argues that it is unfairly being held liable for encouraging what it says were student-initiated protests of a local bakery after a November 2016 shoplifting incident involving minority students, in which the students later admitted guilt. Following the incident, the bakery was labeled as being "racist" and, more specifically, as having a "long account of racial profiling and history." Oberlin denies any institutional involvement in the protest and says that stopping the student-led protests would set a dangerous free speech precedent.
“The verdict and judgment in this case set a precedent that endangers free speech on campuses and for all Americans,” Lee Levine, an attorney for the college, said. “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.”
Lee Plakas, an attorney for the bakery, said in a statement to a local media outlet in Ohio, "Given the repeated attempts by Oberlin College to discount the jury’s verdict, their decision to appeal comes as no surprise. But despite the college’s attempt to reframe this as a First Amendment issue, the law and the facts of this case remain clearly on the side of the Gibson family. The law and the jury’s verdict both remind our country that claimed free speech has its limits, even on a college campus."
"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. There are no exemptions from the law of defamation – a fact we trust will be confirmed during the appeal process," Plakas added, according to WKYC-TV.
Oberlin College's president has vowed to fight the ruling until the end, calling it "just one step along the way of what may turn out to be a lengthy and complex legal process.” That statement, in part, prompted Dave Gibson, owner of the bakery at the center of the case to reveal that while he and his family have been caught up in the legal fight of their lives, he too has been dealing with yet another life-altering battle.
“As we’ve been going through this legal battle, I’ve been going through another personal battle. Late last year, I was diagnosed with the devastating news that I have pancreatic cancer," Gibson said in a video message.
“I believe they’re sending a clear message to me and to my 91-year-old dad that they will just wait us out," Gibson said.