Gibsons victorious! Oberlin College to pay $36 million for malicious attacks

By Brian Williams
September 26, 2022
Members of “Lunch Bunch” gather at Gibson’s Bakery in Oberlin, Ohio, Sept. 7 in solidarity with family’s six-year-long fight against campaign of Oberlin College to destroy their business.
Bruce Bishop/Chronicle-Telegram via APMembers of “Lunch Bunch” gather at Gibson’s Bakery in Oberlin, Ohio, Sept. 7 in solidarity with family’s six-year-long fight against campaign of Oberlin College to destroy their business.

The Gibson family has emerged victorious in its yearslong battle against slander charges by Oberlin College — a victory for all working people.

After years of race-baiting and defamation aimed at destroying the Gibson family and their local bakery, and losing in every court that heard the family’s lawsuit against the assault, Oberlin College has finally agreed to abide by a unanimous 2019 jury verdict finding the college guilty and awarding the Gibsons and their attorneys $36.59 million.

“This has been a historic case that has attracted national and international attention,” Lee Plakas, lead attorney for the Gibson family, said in a statement. “The issues which resonated with the jury and the public during the six-week trial are themes that are important to our society: truth matters — juries have the power to defend families against billion dollar bullies.”

Ohio’s Ninth District Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the original trial verdict on March 31 this year. Oberlin College then appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, but the court refused to hear it Aug. 30, allowing the appeals court decision to stand.

The original jury award was even higher, at $44 million in punitive and compensatory damages before interest, which was reduced by the judge to comply with Ohio laws capping judgments.

“We are disappointed by the Court’s decision,” said Oberlin College in a Sept. 8 statement announcing its initial payment to the Gibsons. “This matter has been painful for everyone.” But what’s absent from this statement is an apology for what the college did wrong. Instead, it considers itself the victim.

In an email sent to college students and alumni, Ambar insisted that “this payment will not impact or diminish our academic or student life experience, or require us to draw down Oberlin’s endowment.”

Oberlin, a town of 8,000, is dominated by the college. It gets an annual tuition fee of $61,106 from its 2,800 students, with total expenses topping $80,000 a year. The college has an endowment of almost $1 billion.

What was done to the Gibsons?

What led to this six-year-long fight? On Nov. 9, 2016, a student tried to use a fake ID to buy wine, and, when that failed, shoplifted it from the store. When Allyn Gibson Jr., the grandson and son of the co-owners, followed him outside and stopped him, the student and two friends, also students at Oberlin, started beating Gibson. The police arrived and arrested the three, who happen to be Black. They eventually entered guilty pleas and were convicted.

The day after this incident hundreds of students demonstrated outside the store. Evidence at the trial showed that Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo and other administrators attended the protest and gave stacks of flyers to students to distribute and allowed use of college copiers to produce them. The flyer said Gibson’s Bakery was a “RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT OF RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.” Protests continued the next day.

The student senate passed a resolution making the same slanderous charge against the Gibsons and it was emailed to all students. Raimondo got the college’s catering vendor to cancel the Gibsons’ longstanding contract to supply baked goods to the campus.

In a feature article in the New York Post Sept. 2, which originally appeared in the Common Sense newsletter, Lorna Gibson, who now runs Gibson’s Bakery, described the ordeal her family was put through by Oberlin College’s race-baiting and slander campaign.

She wrote that David Gibson, her husband, “met with the President of the school, along with other administrators, to try to get Oberlin to retract its baseless claims that we were racist, and to quell the small group of students who, in their passion, had gotten us so wrong. But Oberlin would not even consider issuing a statement and allowed the public to believe that we were in fact racist.

“Instead, the school proposed a deal where, in the future, if a student were caught shoplifting, we’d call the dean instead of the police,” she wrote, something the Gibsons refused to do. So a suit was filed against Oberlin College by co-owners David Gibson and his father, Allyn W. Gibson. Since the 2019 trial both of them died and other family members kept up the fight.

College attorneys argued that the case was simply about students’ right to free speech. But the court correctly rejected this claim. The Gibsons did not sue the students, but Oberlin College and Dean Raimondo, for libel and intentional interference with the Gibsons’ business.

Post-trial college slanders

College slanders of the Gibsons continued for years after the court ruling. As a new class of students came in for the fall, college-authorized tour guides told them not to shop at Gibson’s Bakery and notices are still posted in college buildings denigrating the Gibsons.

On Sept. 7, about 55 people showed up at Gibson’s Bakery in a show of solidarity. The gathering was organized by a group called the Lunch Bunch. “We want to help Allyn and his mother,” Mike Bokulich, a Navy veteran and founding member of the group, told the Lorain County Chronicle-Telegram. They’re “sweating like mad, trying to keep the business afloat.”

“Why I Quit Teaching at Oberlin,” wrote Abraham Socher in the Sept. 1 Wall Street Journal. Socher is the former chair of Jewish Studies at the college.  “Ms. Raimondo and her army of deans,” he answered, “acted not as educators, but more like old-fashioned ward bosses — organizing constituents, trumping up grievances, and pointing them anywhere but the administration building.”

Even after six years of draining assault, the Gibsons hope for reconciliation. “Oberlin College faculty, staff, and students have always been, and will always be, welcome in our store,” Lorna Gibson continues to say. To that end, she is willing to meet with President Ambar and her senior staff to discuss resumption of a long-term relationship whenever the college feels appropriate.