The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Protests at Oberlin labeled a bakery racist. Now, the college has been ordered to pay $11 million for libel.

Pedestrians pass the storefront of Gibson's Food Mart & Bakery in Oberlin, Ohio. (Dake Kang/AP)

On Nov. 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump clinched the presidency, a student at Oberlin College went to a local bakery and convenience store, hoping to leave with a few bottles of wine.

Instead, Jonathan Aladin, 19, ran from the store, chased by an employee, Allyn D. Gibson. A brawl broke out between the two men — the young black student, a sophomore at the time, and the white businessman — which turned into a standoff between the liberal arts college and the downtown establishment, a proxy war in a larger fight over free speech, racial sensitivity and town-gown relations.

The skirmish came with a price tag for the college of $11 million, the sum awarded on Friday to the business by a jury in Lorain County, Ohio. The judgment, which found the college responsible for libel and infliction of emotional distress, provided a bookend to the bitter conflict, which has divided the Oberlin community nestled 35 miles from Cleveland.

Gibson’s Bakery is a century-old, family-owned business with fortunes tightly bound to the college. The shop long supplied Oberlin, the largest employer in town, with bagels and pastries. Alumni return for the apple fritters and whole-wheat doughnuts.

The storied business sits adjacent to the campus, a bastion of liberal activism. Founded in 1833, Oberlin was the first interracial and coeducational college in the United States. The town was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Today, it is nearly 15 percent black, as is 5 percent of Oberlin’s undergraduate population.

In recent years, the college has been an epicenter of the campus culture wars — a site of vehement debate over trigger warnings, safe spaces and the limitations of the Western canon. At Oberlin, no issue is too trivial for critique, not even the authenticity of Chinese cuisine served in the cafeteria.

In fall 2016, students were on high alert following the dismissal of an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition, Joy Karega, over incendiary statements on social media, including her suggestion that Israel was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Karega, who is black, said she was a victim of discrimination. The college’s Black Student Union, assailing Oberlin as an “unethical institution,” had previously called for her tenure.

Against this backdrop, the conflict between Gibson and Aladin erupted, leading to the student’s arrest and arraignment on a robbery charge. The encounter spurred allegations of racial profiling, igniting protests that unfolded in the overwrought days following the 2016 election. Residents of Oberlin favored Hillary Clinton to Trump 11 to 1, while the surrounding county, where the case was later heard, came down on the side of the Democrat by scarcely more than 100 votes.

When Aladin arrived at the front of the store, Gibson, 32 at the time, told the student that he was contacting the police, saying he had seen him slip two bottles of wine under his clothes. When he pulled out his phone to take a picture, according to a police report, Aladin slapped it away, causing it to strike Gibson’s face.

Gibson followed the student from the store, where they began struggling across the street, which is campus property. Police said they arrived to find Gibson on his back, with Aladin, joined by two friends, punching and kicking him. All three undergraduates were charged — Aladin with robbery and his friends with assault.

Students mobilized, encouraging a boycott of the establishment, which is owned by Gibson’s father, David R. Gibson, and his grandfather, also named Allyn.

“A member of our community was assaulted by the owner of this establishment yesterday,” read a flier distributed outside the bakery, calling Gibson’s a “RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.” The leaflet recommended 10 rival businesses where patrons could go instead.

Police later conducted an investigation and found that 40 adults had been arrested for shoplifting at Gibson’s in a five-year period, among them six African Americans.

In an email to students on the Friday after the arrest, Oberlin’s then-president, Marvin Krislov, and its vice president and dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, put reactions to the confrontation at Gibson’s in the context of “fears and concerns that many are feeling in response to the outcome of the presidential election.” They pledged “every resource to determining the full and true narrative” and said they were “deeply troubled because we have heard from students that there is more to the story than what has been generally reported.”

The college suspended its Gibson’s order the following week — later saying this was an attempt to “deescalate student unrest” — but restored it in early 2017.

In August, the three students at the center of the tumult pleaded guilty to amended misdemeanor charges — Aladin to attempted theft, aggravated trespassing and underage purchase of alcohol. Before their sentencing, which involved restitution but no jail time, each student read a statement acknowledging that Gibson was justified in trying to restrain Aladin and that the actions of the bakery’s staff had not been racially motivated, according to court documents.

A lawyer for the teenager pointed to political turmoil in explaining his client’s behavior. “This election, whatever side people stood on, is very emotional,” he said.

For Gibson’s owners, the plea deal reached by the students with prosecutors did not settle the matter. In November 2017, they filed a civil complaint against Oberlin in the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas. Accusing the college of lending support to the protests, the Gibson family sued the institution, as well as Raimondo, for libel, slander, interference with business relationships, interference with contracts, deceptive trade practices, infliction of emotional distress, negligent hiring and trespass.

The owners argued that college leaders facilitated the “illegal defamation and economic boycott” by helping students copy and distribute the fliers, as well as joining them at protest actions and allowing them to skip class and gain credit to continue their campaign. According to the complaint, a Facebook post by an Oberlin academic department stated, “Gibson’s has been bad for decades, their dislike of Black people is palpable. Their food is rotten and they profile Black students. NO MORE! "

“Gibson’s Bakery has suffered a severe and sustained loss of student, professor, administrative, and college department business,” the complaint argued. It also pointed to a “severe emotional and physical toll” on the family. A home had been damaged, they claimed, and car tires had been punctured.

The college responded by arguing that none of the statements cited by the bakery’s owners had been defamatory. Instead, they represented protected speech. Specifically, the filing maintained that the allegation of racism could not be grounds for a defamation claim because it was a statement of opinion that could not be proven false.

Lawyers further argued that Oberlin was not responsible for the views expressed by its students. Raimondo, in her response, said she was present at the protests to ensure they did not descend into violence.

Oberlin acknowledged that some of its students viewed the bakery’s owners as racist. Lawyers for the college accused the Gibson family of adopting an “us versus them” mentality toward the campus community, citing posts on social media by the younger Gibson that took aim at “entitled” students. In a further response, the college denied allowing students to skip class in favor of their protest activity.

Jurors in Lorain County heard the case this spring. Communication unveiled in court filings and at trial revealed how different members of the college community reacted to the controversy. Some were apparently embarrassed by protest activity they felt reflected poorly on the campus, while others said the boycott had been effective in targeting Gibson’s with a “smear on their brand” since the business was unresponsive to other forms of pressure.

Raimondo took the stand and denied accounts that she had instructed college staff to engage in unruly behavior at the demonstrations. She said she lacked “control of the students.” Court documents revealed how she and another administrator shared a sense of outrage after a professor spoke against the boycott.

"[Expletive] him,” Raimondo wrote in a message, the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram reported. She added, “I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us.”

The lawsuit ensured it wasn’t.

On Friday, jurors awarded Gibson’s and its owners $11 million. According to the Chronicle-Telegram, the court found that the college had libeled the bakery and its owners, in addition to inflicting emotional distress on the owners. It found that Raimondo was also responsible for libel, as well as for interfering with the bakery’s business.

The court assigned $5.8 million to Gibson’s father and $3 million to his grandfather, as well as $2.2 million to the bakery. The plaintiffs could gain more in punitive damages, which are the subject of the second phase of the trial, set to begin Tuesday.

Reacting to the verdict, an attorney for the bakery cast the controversy as a story of David and Goliath.

“I think part of what we did here today is answer the question as to, ‘What are we going to tolerate in our society?’" he said, according to the Chronicle-Telegram. “We’re hopeful that this is a sign that not only Oberlin College but in the future, powerful institutions will hesitate before trying to crush the little guy.”

In an email to the college alumni association, an Oberlin vice president, Donica Thomas Varner, said legal counsel was reviewing the verdict and deciding how to proceed. Oberlin’s spring semester ended on May 19.

“We are disappointed with the verdict and regret that the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented,” she wrote. “The College and Dr. Raimondo worked to ensure that students’ freedom of speech was protected and that the student demonstrations were safe and lawful.”

The administrator reiterated the central argument made by Oberlin’s lawyers — that colleges “cannot be held liable for the independent actions of their students,” as she put it.

In the episode’s aftermath, however, the college has aimed to mold the behavior of its students. Last year, Oberlin’s president, Carmen Twillie Ambar, wrote to the local business community about a set of new initiatives designed to teach incoming students how to be a “good neighbor” to local establishments.

The effort includes encouraging students to buy local goods and a new orientation program whose title makes its aim unambiguous: “Community 101.”