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Oberlin College To Pay $31 Million In Defamation Suit
The Ohio Supreme Court declined to review a lower appeals court’s ruling that Oberlin College was liable for supporting claims that a local bakery discriminated against students of color. The college announced it would pay the $31 million in damages to the bakery. The long-running case garnered significant local and national media attention.
The case began in 2016 when Allyn D. Gibson, an employee whose father and grandfather owned the bakery, accused three Black Oberlin students of stealing wine. The students alleged the accusations were racist. The incident led to large student protests urging a boycott of the bakery. The dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, handed out fliers protesting the bakery. The flyer stated that the bakery had a history of discrimination of racial profiling and that the bakery was “heinous.” Oberlin’s student government also passed a resolution accusing the bakery of having a history of racial discrimination. Oberlin eventually ceased doing business with Gibson’s Bakery and stopped selling its products on campus.
Gibson’s Bakery sued Oberlin for defamation, intentional inference with a business relationship, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Among other claims, the bakery alleged that Oberlin had hurt its reputation and it suffered significant financial and emotional damages as a result. After significant litigation, the matter ultimately proceeded to a six-week jury trial. The jury entered verdicts for the bakery and awarded $44 million. A judge later reduced the verdict to $25 million, plus attorneys’ fees, totaling $31 million. Oberlin appealed.
On appeal, the Ohio appeals court upheld the verdict. The appeals court held that “reasonable minds” would interpret the flyer to mean that there have been past incidents of discrimination or profiling at Gibson’s bakery. The appeals court rejected Oberlin’s argument that it did not publish the flyer or the Senate Resolution. A key element in a defamation case is that the defamatory statement is communicated to a third party, called publication. The appeals court held that there was significant evidence that witnesses observed Raimondo handing out flyers. Additionally, Oberlin provided students and staff a room near the protests to take breaks, where it supplied coffee and pizzas. Raimondo also agreed to reimburse a student $75-100 that she spent on gloves so the protestors would not get cold. The appeals court held that the totality of this evidence demonstrates that Oberlin took actions to directly publish or assist in the publishing of the flyer.
The appeals court also found held that Oberlin played an active role in the publication of the Senate Resolution, citing evidence that Oberlin provided the student senate with financial support, a faculty advisor (Raimondo), an office in the student center, and a glass display case within which it could post announcements. The student senate also had the authority to distribute resolutions to the entire student body via email, and display their resolutions in the glass display case.
On the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, the court held that Oberlin’s conduct towards Gibson’s Bakery and its owners was sufficiently “severe and outrageous” to support their claim. The court cited evidence that the dean of students told Oberlin’s food service company to stop doing business with the bakery, that college administrators pressured owners to drop criminal charges against the student shoplifters, and refused to correct the defamatory statements or otherwise stop the ongoing damage to the bakery and owners’ reputations after learning the student allegations of racial profiling might be false. On the interference with business relationship claim, the court of appeals also upheld the jury verdict.
Gibson Bros., Inc. v. Oberlin College (2022) 167 N.E.3d 575.
This case was litigated in Ohio state court and is not binding in California. However, it does provide some insight on how private K-12 schools, colleges, and universities could be held liable for student speech when it provides a platform for such speech. The appeals court held that because Oberlin authorized the existence of the student senate, provided the senate with financial support, and allowed the senate to post its resolutions on school property, the college was legally responsible for the defamatory statements of the student senate.