Oberlin College just got hit again with a jury judgment that could cripple the college financially. Last Friday, the jury found the college guilty of libel and returned a verdict award of $11.2 million to Gibson’s, a local store and its proprietors. Today, the jury added $33 million in punitive damages – a clear sign that jurors were sending a strong message. The total of $44 million is likely to be pared back since Ohio State law caps punitive awards at twice the amount of the verdict award. The jurors also added the cost of the plaintiff’s legal fees to the total.
The story, by now, is well-known. A few days after Donald Trump’s election, an underage black Oberlin student attempted to purchase a bottle of wine. The white proprietor of a local store, Gibson’s, refused to sell the wine, prompting the student to try and shoplift it. He and two friends fled the store with the proprietor in pursuit. The arrests of the students prompted protests by other Oberlin students suggesting that the shoplifters were innocent (they weren’t) and that Gibson was racist (it wasn’t).
A senior Oberlin administrator, Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, joined in the protests. The college ceased purchasing goods and services from Gibson’s—causing the victims of a crime economic harm. And after the college refused to apologize or release a statement denying Gibson’s racist intent, the store, and its owners sued.
Both sides presented mounds of evidence in the 11-day trial. But three items especially stood out.
First: Raimondo maintained that she was a neutral observer at the protest, acting in her official capacity as an Oberlin administrator and only seeking to safeguard the First Amendment rights of the student extremists. But testimony at the trial showed Raimondo handing out flyers denouncing Gibson’s as racist, indicating that she (and through her, the college) endorsed the protesters’ message. Raimondo was also subjected to a brutal cross-examination in which she refused to concede that it was harmful to a business to be falsely accused of racist behavior.
Second: even if a senior Oberlin administrator endorsed the protest if the allegations of racism were true, Gibson’s had no case. But a police study, prepared in response to requests from the media, showed that Gibson’s allegations of criminal misconduct showed no signs of racial disparity. And the shoplifting students eventually pled guilty for their crime. And so, in effect, the protest amounted to a demand that black Oberlin shoplifters should receive some sort of special treatment, hardly a winning message for the school.
Third: after the original protests, Oberlin cut off business with Gibson’s. To restore commercial ties, Oberlin demanded that Gibson’s report future Oberlin students who broke the law on the store’s premises not to the police—but instead to the college, where they’d be shielded from criminal prosecution. I’d have to think that this element of the case—a separate, preferred criminal justice system open only to Oberlin students and not other county residents—played particularly poorly with the jury.
In short, a key Oberlin administrator endorsed a fact-free, defamatory protest against a local business; and the school responded to the controversy by seeking to create a parallel (and more lenient) criminal justice system that would only be open to Oberlin students (or, at least, preferred Oberlin students) who engaged in off-campus criminal behavior.
The most jarring comment to come from the trial was a text from Meredith Raimondo. After a lone Oberlin professor protested the college’s handling of the case, Raimondo wrote a colleague, “Fuck him. I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us.” This comment, of course, not only indicated Raimondo’s sympathy for the students’ extremism (belying later college claims that she was merely acting in a neutral fashion) but also suggested that she exercised some control over the students—or at least believed she had some control.
Raimondo, in fact, had been promoted shortly before the Gibson’s affair. She previously had served as Oberlin’s Title IX coordinator, where she said she approached her task “as a feminist committed to survivor-centered processes.” She said she was “uncomfortable” with discussions about “grey areas” of consent, because, she said, “I think it’s too often used to discredit particularly women’s experiences of violence.” And she maintained that the “first goal of a Title IX hearing at Oberlin” was not to discern the truth, but instead to provide “a safe, supportive space for someone to ask, ‘What are the harms you experienced and how can we address them so you can continue your education?’” The Title IX lawsuit that discovered these comments is now before the Sixth Circuit, so it’s possible that Raimondo could play a role in another major legal defeat for the college.
The arrogance seen in Raimondo’s conduct reappeared in a post-verdict mass e-mail sent by the college’s counsel—even before the punitive damages were decided. The e-mail asserted that—despite the evidence the jury found convincing, neither “Oberlin College nor Dean Meredith Raimondo defamed a local business or its owners, and they never endorsed statements made by others.” In a non-sequitur, the e-mail claimed, “Colleges cannot be held liable for the independent actions of their students”—but nothing in the jury’s verdict suggested otherwise.
The trial received extensive coverage in the Legal Insurrection blog, the only non-local publication to have a reporter in the courtroom and the only publication to have daily articles on what transpired in court. The approach was a reminder that blogs can still play an important role, even in an era where Twitter often serves as the dominant social media venue.
Legal Insurrection’s performance was even more impressive in comparison to the performance of the national media, especially the New York Times, which only covered the affair after the verdict came down. The Times article, written by Mihir Zaveri and Emily Rueb, framed the verdict as an assault on student free speech, anchored by several quotes from noted First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams. (“The notion that uninhibited student speech can lead to vast financial liability for the universities at which it occurs threatens both the viability of educational institutions and ultimately the free speech of their students,” Abrams told the Times.) But the issue in the case was the conduct of the college—and in particular Raimondo—not the students.
It wasn’t clear from his comments whether Abrams was relying on an incomplete understanding of the case provided by the reporters and/or Oberlin, or whether he was contending that in cases where students target local business, a college or its employees shouldn’t be held liable for anything they do. But it was striking that the Times reporters featured quotes from only four people—lawyers from the two parties, Abrams, and higher-ed official who echoed Abrams’ First Amendment framing. Neither Abrams nor the higher-ed official commented on Raimondo’s claim that she believed she had the power to leash or “unleash” the students, or on the evidence of Raimondo herself distributing the defamatory flyers.
Oberlin doubtless will appeal.
This story was updated on June 13 at 9:06 pm.