Defamation

Oberlin Has Been Ordered to Pay $44 Million in a Defamation Lawsuit. The Punishment Doesn't Fit the Crime.

A local bakery accused the college of defamation after students launched a public campaign against the store for racial profiling. Oberlin mounted a free speech defense.

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A jury has awarded a whopping $44 million in damages to a bakery that accused Oberlin College of defamation after students launched a dishonest campaign against the store for racial discrimination.

It's not hard to sympathize with Gibson's Bakery: The actions of student activists were contemptible, and it appears Oberlin may have encouraged their behavior. According to leaked texts, for instance, Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo—who was also accused of passing out fliers at a student protest—expressed her desire to "unleash the students" on a professor emeritus who publicly sided with the bakery.

But the sheer amount of damages goes too far in the other direction, and likely violates state law.

The incident occurred on November 9, 2016, when an employee at Gibson's Bakery saw an Oberlin student swipe several bottles of wine from the establishment. He ran after the suspect on foot. When authorities arrived at the scene, both the thief and two of his friends—all of whom are black—were beating the cashier, who is white, as he laid on the ground. The three assailants, who have since disputed that racism played a part in the event, were arrested that night and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanors in connection with the incident.

Even so, protests soon followed, with a number of students claiming that the altercation was racially motivated. They also said that Gibson's has a long history of racial bias against its patrons, although it's worth noting that no such complaints have ever been filed against the store. Nevertheless, the bakery is "a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION," fliers read.

Following the incident, Oberlin College severed ties with the bakery—from which it previously placed a daily order—for two months.

The Gibson family then filed suit against the college, alleging that Oberlin had inappropriately supported students in the protests. The handouts, for instance, were made on campus using materials at the college and Raimondo assisted in giving at least one to a reporter, although other individuals testified they saw her pass out additional fliers as well. Oberlin countered that they were merely trying to preserve the safety of all parties and that they should not be held responsible for the words and actions of their students.

The jury sided with Gibson's, awarding $11 million in compensatory damages to atone for the harm—both economic and emotional—they experienced as a result of the backlash. But in a stunning rebuke to Oberlin, the jury placed another $33 million in punitive damages on top of that, meant to penalize the college for its conduct.

Reactions were predictably polarized. "This is condign punishment for the college's mendacity about helping to incite a mob mentality and collective bullying in response to 'racist' behavior that never happened," writes conservative George Will at The Washington Post. David French echoed those sentiments in National Review, calling it "a chilling effect that may well do some good."

Oberlin College and its students, on the other hand, framed the decision as a threat to free speech, writing that the ruling has "profoundly disturbing implications" for the First Amendment in an editorial for The Oberlin Review.

Conservatives, of course, have often been the ones accusing liberal-leaning colleges of chilling free expression. Yet it was Oberlin that put up a First Amendment defense in court, usurping the right's own logic to argue that a win for Gibson's would be a sucker punch for free speech.

The ironies are rich—and not lost on some of the students. "Conservative commentators often talk about a supposed crisis of free speech on campuses, wherein students wield the sword of political correctness to silence dissenting opinions," writes the student newspaper's editorial board. "To the contrary, this verdict is a real warning shot against free speech. The fact that those same commentators have widely lauded the verdict reveals their hypocrisy and lays their thinly-veiled agenda bare."

Conservatives often do abandon their free speech cards when they calculate it serves them. (See the conservative fight to regulate online speech.) But this case isn't nearly as cut and dry as Oberlin students have claimed.

As First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh points out, libel laws are certainly constitutional, especially when they are based on deliberate lies. One could make a convincing case that parties involved set out to defame Gibson's, as no documented history of racial profiling at the store exists.

With that in mind, the jury was tasked with one central question: Did administrators assist the protests apart from protecting the safety of participants, and did they—particularly Raimondo—do so with intent to malign the business?

"If you're acting as agents by passing out false information, then you have to answer for that," Volokh tells Reason. "But it's hard to see how that merits $11 million dollars in damages."

That number has since quadrupled with the punitive damages—a sum of money that far surpasses any concrete harm perpetuated by Oberlin's students and administrators. What's more, it exceeds Ohio's own cap on such damages, as current law stipulates that punitive awards may only reach double the compensatory.

So how did the panel come to the drastic conclusion? Juries have "wide discretion" in assigning a price tag to economic and emotional injury perpetrated by libel, Volokh says. If the brouhaha at Oberlin is any example, then, perhaps it's time that expectations are recalibrated on both sides of the debate, so that petty crimes don't automatically elicit cries of racism, and so that those cries aren't met with ludicrous punishments.