Oberlin appeals court victory by bakery in college’s smear campaign

By Roy Landersen
November 4, 2019

Oberlin College’s administration is stepping up its campaign to reverse a victory for working people against class privilege and slanderous race-baiting. The Board of Trustees announced Oct. 8 it was filing an appeal against the jury verdict that led to a multimillion dollar libel judgment to the Gibson family and their bakery over the school’s efforts to smear them as racists and drive them out of business.

The school has hired a new team of prominent Washington, D.C., lawyers to join three other expensive firms retained by the college to try and overturn the verdict by turning the target of its slanders into the criminal.

In a press release announcing the appeal, new attorney Lee Levine tried to reframe the case as setting “a precedent that endangers free speech on campuses.” This post-trial narrative seeks to paint the college as the victim, claiming it was just trying to facilitate students’ exercise of their constitutional rights. But this is simply false. There was no mention of any students’ opinions in the lawsuit by the Gibsons, or, for that matter, by the college in its own defense.

What is at stake is the slanderous, self-righteous course of action by the administration officials, defaming a small business as racist, cutting off its contract with the college and promoting a boycott to bring them to their knees.

The unanimous jury verdict reflected the opinions of working people in the area, who see the college as a meritocratic institution used to getting its way.

The college’s appeal and heavy array of lawyers shows the college is planning a protracted, bruising and expensive battle aimed at one thing — forcing the Gibsons out of business unless they relinquish their legal victory.

In a transparent effort to weaken the support of local working people for the Gibsons, the college put out a glossy 24-page booklet entitled “Our Community,” to remind everyone that Oberlin is a company town “economically intertwined” with the school. College administrators explain that they spend $143 million annually in the local economy and that area residents should recognize — and bow down to — their largesse. It also trumpets the school’s community service and green credentials.

Guilty as charged

On June 7, a Lorain County jury found the college administration and its dean of students and vice president, Meredith Raimondo, guilty of a defamatory and destructive campaign against the 134-year-old family business. Damages and costs of $44 million were awarded by the jury against them.

Citing Ohio state law, which unconstitutionally limits punitive damages awards, Judge John Miraldi lowered the judgment to $25 million. He also awarded $6.5 million in legal fees. The Gibsons’ lawyers have indicated that in the case of an appeal they will raise the stakes for the college by seeking to overturn Ohio’s punitive award cap and have the full verdict restored, plus additional fees and interest. Similar challenges have recently been successful in 13 other states.

The student-run Oberlin Review, which has dutifully echoed the college administration’s line against the Gibsons, expressed some concern about the college’s disdainful better-than-thou attitude by holding a self-congratulatory fireworks celebration at its Oct. 5 homecoming event. It signaled “a larger dissonance for an institution currently grappling with … financial stability,” the Review editorialized Oct. 11, and “how to treat community members with fairness and respect.”

Oberlin College’s financial crisis

Oberlin College admits it has been hit hard by the crisis of capitalism in recent years. “Structural deficits in its operating budgets,” a slick May 10 44-page administration report entitled “One Oberlin” says, are eating into its billion dollar endowment by as much as 8% annually.

The college complains that the pay and benefits won by the schools’ employees, organized by the United Auto Workers, is “34% higher than the average” of its regional competitors. The report says, “Oberlin will need to reduce personnel costs by at least $4 million” by 2024.

Just like any other capitalist employer, the review says they’ve decided on cost reduction “levers,” including job cuts, contracting out work, speedup and wage reductions. This, they say, will require “a culture of managerial courage.”

And they say they’re cutting 100 students out of the school’s well-known music conservatory in order to add 100 more to the liberal arts division, whose students pay more to go there.

The libel case stemmed from an incident in November 2016 when an African American student tried to use fake ID to buy wine at the bakery. He then tried to steal it. When the store owner’s son went to stop him outside, the student and two friends wrestled him to the ground. The students were arrested and all pled guilty to misdemeanor charges and admitted in court that no racism was involved.

The jury found that college officials, led by Raimondo, orchestrated, helped organize and participated in two days of subsequent student protests outside the store. The administration led in perpetrating the libel, without a shred of evidence, that the bakery owners had a long history of racism. They canceled standing orders of goods from the bakery as part of a boycott campaign against the store.

When challenged by a faculty member, who said no one in town supported their charges of racism, Raimondo said, “F–k him. I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us.”

School officials argued the trial should be moved out of the area, saying that they “could not (and did not) receive a fair trial in Lorain County.” But the fact is it was working-class solidarity, not “prejudice,” that generated widespread support there and helped to sustain the Gibsons in their battle.

“Institutions like Oberlin College should not be permitted to bully others while hiding behind the claimed shield of free speech,” Lee Plakas, lead attorney for the Gibsons and their store, told the press after the college filed its appeal. “There are no exemptions from the law of defamation.”

And that’s why class conscious workers support the verdict and damages award, as a political blow against high-handed class disdain and against race-baiting.