Judge backs Gibsons in fight over privacy rights

By Emma Johnson
May 25, 2020

For more than three years Oberlin College has pursued a vicious race-baiting smear campaign against the Gibson family in the Ohio college town. The family, which owns Gibson’s bakery shop, have won wide working-class support in the area and all court rounds so far in a legal fight to halt the slanders. The latest victory was an April 29 ruling by Lorain County Judge John Miraldi barring some media outlets from making public the sealed and private Facebook records of a member of the Gibson family. 

In 2016, Allyn Gibson, a store clerk, stopped an Oberlin College student who is Black from using a fake ID to buy wine and then prevented him from shoplifting. The man and two friends ran out of the store and then assaulted Gibson, who had followed them outside. The students were arrested and later testified that no racism or racial profiling was involved by the Gibsons, who agreed the charges against the students should be dropped.

In the days after the shoplifting attempt, Oberlin College Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo and other college officials helped organize student protests outside Gibson’s and initiated a boycott against it. They accused the family — with no evidence — of a long history of racism and “racial profiling.” The bakery had supplied the college cafeteria with baked goods for more than a century and no such charge was ever leveled against the owners.

After college officials refused to back off their slanders, the Gibsons took them to court. In June 2019 a Lorain County jury unanimously found the college and Raimondo guilty of libel and interference in business relations. The jury awarded the bakery damages and legal fees totaling more than $30 million. 

Oberlin’s board of trustees has appealed, hoping to overturn the jury’s verdict and pressure the bakery owners to give up defending themselves. College officials claim the protests and slanders of “racism” are simply actions and opinions of the students, constitutionally protected free speech. But the Gibsons never sued the students. They sued the college  and the dean and proved to the jury they were slandered and their business was damaged. 

College officials began looking for dirt to smear the family further, filing a court motion in August 2019 seeking to make public private Facebook postings by Allyn Gibson. He was not a party to the legal battle against the college. 

The Facebook records were part of the pretrial proceedings, but were sealed by the court with agreement of the college. Allyn Gibson was not called to testify and the college did not seek to use his private records as evidence in the trial. 

In September Judge Miraldi ruled against the college’s motion to unseal. 

In November, an almost identical motion seeking public release of the Facebook records was filed by the owners of the Plain Dealer, WEWS-TV and the Ohio Coalition for Open Government. None of them had paid much attention to the earlier legal fight, but suddenly jumped in to claim the “public interest” in these private records “outweighs” all confidentiality considerations. 

Lawyers for the family asserted these outlets are collaborating with Oberlin College. The college’s lead trial lawyer, Ronald Holman, was a legal analyst for more than 10 years for WEWS-TV.

In his two-page April 29 decision, Judge Miraldi ruled against the media outfits’ motion, saying he “finds that the continued restriction of public access is warranted.” It’s an important victory for the right to privacy and setback for the college’s effort to continue their attacks against the bakery. 

The money and resources the college administration continues to pour into their vendetta against a small business and its family members is meant to send a message, “We run this town and those who try to stand up to us are going to pay.” 

But the Gibson family’s stand has shown it is possible to fight back and win. Their cause deserves the continued support of working people everywhere.