Oberlin College has complied with an order to post a $36 million bond by July 31, while it appeals a guilty verdict against it for slandering Gibson’s Bakery and the Gibson family in Oberlin, Ohio. This represents the total amount of judgments against the college, plus interest, awarded in June.
Following a six-week trial a Lorain County jury found the college and Meredith Raimondo, college vice president and dean of students, guilty of slandering the Gibsons and their family-run bakery and convenience store as “racist,” intentionally and maliciously damaging the business.
The jury’s verdict is a victory for working people, striking a blow against race-baiting and the arrogant exercise of class privilege by the Oberlin College administration.
The jury awarded the Gibsons $44 million, the largest civil judgment for defamation by libel in Ohio history. Judge John Miraldi later reduced the damages to a still substantial $25 million citing Ohio law, which limits civil judgments. He awarded a further $6.5 million to the Gibsons’ attorneys for their fees and expenses.
The college opposed having to post a bond at all. But noting that the appeal process could take up to three years, the judge added some $4.5 million to the bond total to cover interest. The bond ensures that if the college decides to appeal but fails, it won’t be able to claim it doesn’t have the money to pay up.
The bond was necessary because of “the College’s own statements about its dire financial straits,” including “$190 million of existing debt” and a “significant operating deficit,” the Gibsons’ attorneys said in their motion to the court.
The college had to post the $36 million bond or face paying the Gibsons and their lawyers immediately. Meanwhile, the college is attempting to raise $82 million in bonds to pay off other debts.
In November 2016 college officials, led by Raimondo, orchestrated protests outside Gibson’s Bakery for two days after three students who are Black were caught shoplifting after trying to buy wine with a fake ID.
As part of a plea bargain that allowed them to avoid jail time, the three students stated that the actions of Gibson employees “were not racially motivated. They were merely trying to prevent an underage sale.” Of 40 shoplifters arrested for stealing from the bakery in a five-year period, only six were Black.
But the facts were of little interest to the Oberlin administration. Falsely claiming that the 134-year-old store had a long history of racial-profiling, the college canceled its long-term contract with Gibson’s for purchasing baked goods and continued to slander the store.
At one point Oberlin officials offered to cut a deal, if the Gibsons would agree in the future to call the college and not the cops, when students are caught shoplifting for the first time. The Gibsons refused to treat students differently than others from the town.
In November 2017, David and Allyn Gibson Sr. sued the college and Raimondo for their false accusations of racism and for damaging the business. Numerous townspeople, including several African Americans, testified against the “racism” smear during the libel case.
At the heart of the case is social class and class privilege. Would the law apply equally to students from upper-middle-class families who could afford $58,000 a year tuition at Oberlin College, or would students get preferred treatment over others as the college insisted? Can the liberal meritocrats and “social justice warriors” who run the college with their attitudes of entitlement utilize race-baiting to crush a small business?
The unanimous decision in favor of the Gibsons by the eight-person Lorain County jury reflects that working people were fed up with the actions of Oberlin College officials. When the protests against Gibson’s began, workers from all over the area went out of their way to shop at the store and show their support, repulsed by the school’s slander campaign.
Crisis affects Lorain County workers
The college’s lawyers tried and failed to get the trial moved out of Lorain County where Oberlin is located to somewhere they hoped would be more favorable to the university. They claimed the jury pool in Lorain was poisoned and had a “lack of balanced views.” That’s just a reflection of their contempt for working people.
Workers in Lorain have experienced years of capitalist decline, job cuts and a broader social crisis, including the impact of opioid addiction that has wreaked devastation across counties in northern Ohio and around the country. As working people look for ways to struggle together against the impact of this carnage on their lives, they are boosted by the verdict against the college, the biggest business in town, which thought it could libel the Gibson family as “racist” and get away with it.
Peter Thierjung contributed to this article.