In a victory for the Gibson family and working people, Lorraine County, Ohio, Judge John Miraldi Sept. 9 denied motions by Oberlin College asking him to either grant them a new trial or overturn the jury verdict finding the college and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo guilty of libeling the family and the bakery they own. College officials had promoted destructive slanders, protests and a boycott of the store claiming that the small business and its owners are racists.
A Lorain County jury ruled in favor of the Gibsons June 7. They were awarded $44 million in damages, a reflection of the injustice the jury concluded was done to the Gibsons by the college’s smear campaign. It was the largest libel award in Ohio history. Because of an unjust Ohio law limiting punitive damages, Miraldi, who presided over the trial, reduced the award to a total of $31.5 million, which included lawyers’ fees.
Oberlin College administrators continue to refuse to issue a simple, factual statement that the Gibsons are not racist and have never carried out racial profiling and that there is no reason to boycott the store.
The college administration has made it clear that it plans to appeal the verdict and monetary award. Dragging out the litigation — having orchestrated a boycott of the store and ended the bakery’s contract to provide bagels and pastries to the campus — is aimed at driving Gibson’s out of business.
The college’s lawyers submitted some 100 pages for their two post-trial motions along with 542 further pages of documentation in their efforts to nullify the Lorain County jury verdict. Miraldi responded with just one page for each of the college’s demands, ruling that the verdict and judgment against the college would stand and denied the college a new trial.
The college’s slander campaign against the bakery owners began in November 2016, after three students who are Black attempted to steal from the Gibson’s store.
When the cops arrived these students had Allyn Gibson on the ground and were beating him. All three later pled guilty to misdemeanor charges and made statements that there was no racism involved in the incident.
Over the next two days, Raimondo organized and accompanied hundreds of students to protest outside the bakery and called on students and others to boycott the store.
Outraged at the slandering of the Gibsons, working people from the region came by to shop at the bakery as a show of solidarity.
Oberlin College is one of the top 20 most expensive universities in the country and its administration prides itself on being “progressive.” The college home webpage states, “Think one person can change the world? So do we.” Its self-righteous promotion of “social justice” alongside its race-baiting are aimed at defending its class privilege. It is the largest capitalist company in the small town of Oberlin and acts on the assumption that it will get its way.
Is slander free speech?
During the trial and in their motions Oberlin College officials have portrayed the lawsuit and verdict as an attack on “free speech,” both of university administrators and the students. That argument will be at the center of any appeal. But the lawsuit was not directed against the students at all. It was aimed at the college administration for its actions and slanders.
In one of its filings challenging the verdict, the college states that the flyer distributed during the protests contains “no false statements of fact directed at Plaintiffs” and that the allegations of racism “are constitutionally protected opinions that cannot be proven false.”
But throughout the trial and to this day the college has not provided a shred of evidence to justify the smear of the Gibsons on the protest flyer, which stated that the bakery is a “RACIST establishment with a LONG ACOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.”
Showing its disdain for working people in the area, Oberlin College claimed it couldn’t get a fair trial because media coverage of the dispute “would necessarily poison any Lorain County jury pool.”
Passion or prejudice
The college lawyers also claimed the damages awarded were excessive because of “passion or prejudice.” They think working people aren’t smart enough to rule the right way.
College lawyers claimed that a Gibsons’ attorney was certain to “inflame the passions of any religious juror,” when they quoted one of the college’s own administrators who referenced the bible when she texted that she hoped the college would “rain fire and brimstone on that store.”
Miraldi’s ruling denying the motion for a new trial states that “the amount awarded is not manifestly excessive nor does it appear to be influenced by passion or prejudice.”
An administration in crisis
Meanwhile, the Oberlin administration is in a crisis. A Sept. 6 article in the Oberlin Review, a student-run newspaper that has been part of promoting the administration’s anti-Gibson’s campaign, reports on the search to hire replacements for the deans of Arts & Sciences and of the prestigious music Conservatory, both of whom resigned over the last year. Numerous other college officials have been replaced over the last two years.
“I’ve been here for 17 years, and I’ve never seen as much turnover in senior staff ever,” psychology professor Cindy Frantz told the Review.
In another sign of the college’s decline, the renowned Cleveland Orchestra won’t be playing a concert at the campuses’ Finney Chapel, “for the first time in 100 years,” because of the school’s “budgetary concerns.”
One of the reasons college officials gave for arguing against having to post a bond for the damage award while the case is appealed is the college’s financial straits.
While upholding the verdict, the judge denied one motion by the Gibsons, which asked for “prejudgment interest,” an additional financial penalty if the college appeals. The Gibsons argued that the college was unnecessarily drawing out the litigation to harm the bakery.
The Oberlin administration’s next step is to try to take its crusade against the small business owners to an appeals court.
The courts are not favorable terrain for working people and small businesses fighting to defend their rights. That the Gibsons have won out so far is a tribute to the widespread support they have received and the strength of their fight against the race-baiting slanders promoted by the college administration.