After a fight in court, Oberlin says it will pay a local bakery $36.59 million.
Gibson's Bakery said that after a Black student was caught shoplifting, the liberal arts college made up a story that it was racist.
Oberlin College, which is known as a bastion of progressive politics, said on Thursday that it would pay $36.59 million to a local bakery that said it had been slandered and falsely accused of racism after a worker caught a Black student shoplifting.
That 2016 dispute with Gibson's Bakery led to a long legal battle that reverberated far beyond the small college town in Ohio. It sparked a bitter national debate about criminal justice, race, free speech, and whether the college had done enough to hold students accountable.
The college's board of trustees made the decision Thursday, nine days after the Ohio Supreme Court turned down the college's request to hear its appeal of a lower court ruling.
In an email sent Thursday, the lawyer for the Gibson family, Lee E. Plakas, said, "The truth is important." "David can still beat Goliath if he has the support of a moral community."
In a statement, Oberlin said that "this matter has been painful for everyone" and that "we hope that the end of the litigation will start the healing of our whole community."
The college agreed that the size of the judgment, which includes damages and interest, was "significant." However, it said that it could be paid "without affecting our academic and student experience" with "careful financial planning" and insurance. Oberlin has a strong endowment of almost $1 billion.
The case hinged on whether or not Oberlin officials slandered the bakery by backing students who said it did racial profiling. The verdict, which basically said that they did, may make other colleges and universities think twice before joining student causes, legal experts said.
Neal Hutchens, a professor of higher education at the University of Kentucky, said, "Such a large amount will make institutions all over the country take notice and be very careful about the difference between helping students and being part of a cause." "It wasn't so much that the students were talking; it was that the institution took what they said without question. "Sometimes you have to go backwards."
Professor Hutchens also said that it was important that Gibson's was a small family business and not a big multinational company like Walmart or Amazon, which would be better able to handle the loss of business from a protest like this.
Oberlin is a small liberal arts college with a reputation for producing students who are strong in the arts and humanities and for having progressive politics. This is because it was a stop on the Underground Railroad and one of the first colleges to accept Black students. The cost of going to Oberlin is more than $80,000 a year, and tuition is more than $61,000 a year. The college is also an important part of the town, which depends on the school and its students for its economy. The bakery was across the street from the college and was known for its donuts and chocolates. It was a must-eat in Oberlin.
In November 2016, a student tried to buy a bottle of wine with a fake ID while stealing two more bottles by hiding them under his coat, according to court papers. This is what started the fight.
Allyn Gibson, who is white and the son and grandson of the owners, chased the student out onto the street, where two of his friends who were also Oberlin students and Black joined in the fight. The students later admitted that they were guilty of different charges.
According to court papers, that fight led to two days of protests. Several hundred students gathered in front of the bakery and said that it had made racial assumptions about its customers.
Gibson's sued Oberlin for slandering the bakery when the dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, and other members of the administration took sides in the dispute by going to the protests. At the protests, fliers with lots of capital letters called for a boycott of the bakery and said that it was a "RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT OF RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION."
Gibson's also showed evidence that Oberlin had stopped ordering from the bakery but had offered to start again if the charges against the three students were dropped or if the bakery gave special treatment to the students who were accused of shoplifting. The bakery refused to do either of these things.
The store said that the college's position had scared customers away because they didn't want to be seen as backing a business that the college had called racist.
Oberlin disagreed with some parts of that story and said that the students were just exercising their right to free speech under the First Amendment. The government said that all it was trying to do was keep the peace. The college's court papers also said that Allyn Gibson had studied martial arts and that she had gotten the student kicked out of the store and into public view, which was bad for the store's reputation.
In the spring, a three-judge panel of the Ohio Court of Appeals upheld the jury's decision, which was reached after a six-week trial, that Oberlin was guilty of libel, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and intentional interference with a business relationship. This meant that by siding with the protesters, Oberlin had effectively slandered the business. A judge cut the jury's original award of $44 million in punitive and compensatory damages because it was too high. The latest amount includes about $5 million in compensatory damages, almost $20 million in punitive damages, $6.5 million in attorney's fees, and almost $5 million in interest.
The Court of Appeals agreed in its decision that students had the right to protest. But the court said that the flier and a related resolution from the student senate that said the store had a history of racial profiling were not protected by the Constitution.
"The message to other colleges is to have the guts to be the adult in the room," Mr. Plakas said in an interview in June 2019 after the jury decided on the damages.
After the 2019 jury award against Oberlin, the college president, Carmen Twillie Ambar, said that the case was far from over and that "none of this will make us change our core values." At the time, the college said that the protests were caused by the bakery's "archaic chase-and-detain policy" for suspected shoplifters.
But in a statement released on Thursday, Oberlin made it sound like the long, nasty fight had hurt its relationships with people and businesses in the area.
In a statement, it said, "We value our relationship with the city of Oberlin." "And we're looking forward to continuing to help local businesses and work with them as we work together to make our city grow."