This article originally appeared in The Federalist, dated June 14th, 2019.
Imagine living in an ideological bubble so watertight you will excuse the criminal activity of your students just because of your completely unfounded gullibility to the idea that the victims of the crime are racist.
That’s exactly what happened at Oberlin College, in Ohio, when a jury found Friday that several high-profile administrators encouraged libel against a local bakery simply because it had caught several African-American Oberlin students for shoplifting. According to the text of the civil suit, Oberlin’s administrators encouraged their students to boycott the establishment and actively participated in publicly shaming the owners.
Here are the facts: on November 9, 2016 (the day after Election Day), three African-American students were caught shoplifting at Gibson’s Bakery. When news broke of the incident, some of the students accused the owners of racially profiling the shoplifters, and demanded a boycott of the establishment. They immediately began protesting, even though all three of the implicated students eventually pled guilty and paid restitution.
Oberlin’s Administration Chose to Escalate
Oberlin had a chance to quell the outbursts but instead capitulated to student protesters by cutting off all business with Gibson’s, including all longstanding catering deals. It also spread a Student Senate resolution that condemned the bakery of racism, although there was no evidence of racism. Suffering irreparable damage during the smear campaign, the bakery chose to sue Oberlin on a number of counts including libel, tortious interference with contracts, and trespassing.
The jury found that Oberlin’s administration had libeled Gibson’s Bakery. There was also evidence that the Oberlin administration conspired to emotionally harm the bakers. The college’s Multicultural Resource Center Director sent a text that read “after a year, I hope we rain fire and brimstone on that store.” In an email sent to a (now-former) theater professor who criticized Oberlin’s approach, Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo said “I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced [the situation with Gibson’s] needs to be put behind us.”
The jury ordered Oberlin to pay $11 million in damages to Gibson’s for their role in destroying the business’s credibility and good reputation. For the owners of the bakery, this verdict relieved two years of immense legal strife and belittling, including a shameful attempt by Oberlin to argue that Gibson’s Bakery (a multigenerational family establishment) carried only $35,000 dollars in total value.
For Now, Libel Is Still Illegal
For the rest of America, the victory represented hope that basic standards of order can prevail over the lawless atmospheres of contemporary campus life. Americans should be concerned about the new naming-and-shaming culture, often wielded by leftist activists to punish anyone they don’t like. In fact, just this last week, YouTube demonetized several popular conservative podcasts just because a Vox journalist thought some of its content was offensive.
But Oberlin would apparently rather protect the worst excesses of its own race-shaming students than stand up for basic standards of evidence-gathering. According to the plaintiffs, Oberlin tried to force Gibson’s Bakery to give first-time shoplifters a pass in exchange for resuming business with the college. Such a rule would clearly violate a business’s right to press charges against criminals, but Oberlin cared more about appeasing student protesters than the bakery’s rights to due process.
Oberlin responded to the lawsuit by asserting that it claims no responsibility for the free speech of its students, false as its protests were. This is a false framing. Oberlin College administrators and staff are responsible; they actively participated in smearing Gibson’s reputation.
In addition to the aforementioned conspiratorial emails and alleged intimidation, a senior official at Oberlin helped organize the rally against Gibson’s, encouraging the protests and abetting the false claims of the owners’ racism, according to witness testimony. The jury saw this case as not a simple free speech issue, but a libel issue specific to the actions of the college administration.
Oberlin Deliberately Incited Students’ Criminal Behavior
Another objection contends that the libel standard used against Oberlin is too broad. After all, so the argument goes, if mere encouragement of damaging actions is libel, then shouldn’t the talk-show hosts who “inspire” mass shooters also be charged with libel?
But the relationship between Oberlin’s encouragement and the actions of the protesters is far more direct. Oberlin staff stopped all business with Gibson’s, appeared at rallies with the protesters, and passed out fliers calling the bakery a racist establishment. Without the assistance of the college staff, it was unlikely the protest and damage would have swelled to the size it did.
In the end, the jury saw malicious intent, defamation, false statements by the college, and numerous irreparable damages as evidence enough to require Oberlin to pay $11 million to the bakery for its reprehensible and libelous conduct. It’s a verdict that was necessary and deserved.
Liberal academia, drunk on its own power and past successes in playing the naming and shaming game against people they don’t like, have pushed it too far this time. The stern punishment against Oberlin will perhaps serve as a reminder to college campuses that words, especially inflammatory ones like “racist,” are capable of devastating harm and should not be used lightly, and should especially not be used along with intimidation, defamation, and destruction.