Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College: The Warning to Wokesters

Late last month, an Ohio appellate court affirmed the $31.2 million judgment in favor of Gibson’s Bakery and members of the Gibson family against Oberlin College and its former Dean of Students, Meredith Raimondo. While Oberlin and Raimondo can (and probably will) ask the Ohio Supreme Court to review the decision, that Court grants only a small fraction of such appellate petitions, and the chances that the United States Supreme Court would accept any subsequent petition to review such a state law case are essentially nil. While the Fat Lady hasn’t yet sung, it certainly sounds like she’s warming up.

It thus looks pretty likely that with accumulated postjudgment interest, Oberlin will have to fork over in excess of $34 million to the Gibson family. This is on top of the millions Oberlin has spent on attorneys fees, and millions more that the negative publicity has and will likely cost Oberlin. The eight-figure disaster should serve as a timely object lesson to universities and administrators: surrendering to wokeism and cancel culture (in Oberlin’s case, embracing and participating in it) can have very real, very expensive repercussions.

Background

What happened on November 9, 2016, in Gibson’s Bakery, the reactions of Oberlin students and administration, and the ensuing escalations of the dispute, provide a long and illuminating parable of wokeism and cancel culture on campus today. I’ll briefly summarize the story, but I would be sorely remiss if I did not direct readers to the Legal Insurrection archives on this case. Cornell Law Professor William Jacobson has covered the dispute from the start, and his exhaustive reporting and real-time legal (and tactical) analysis of the events of the case as they unfolded are unparalleled.

By 2016, Oberlin was already well-known to be among the “wokest” of campuses, with a reputation of overreacting to anything that might be evidence of the “systemic racism” bogeyman. For instance, in 2013, there were reports of a person wearing what appeared to be a KKK uniform near the school’s Afrikan Heritage House (later determined to likely have been just a female student draped in a blanket). Shortly afterwards, racist graffiti appeared in a few areas on campus. Oberlin reacted by immediately cancelling classes, organizing various campus discussions, and promising more of the usual sackcloth and ashes.

Only one problem: when police investigated these incidents, the “KKK” sighting was at best a mistake by an overimaginative student, and remaining incidents were deliberate hoaxes perpetrated by two white wokester students who admitted that they did it “as a joke to see the college overreact to it as they have with [similar incidents].” Did that provoke any self-examination by the Oberlin administration that perhaps they were overreacting to these kinds of incidents (particularly after it emerged that the administration knew these were hoaxes early on, yet continued to push the narrative that there were real racist threats on campus)? Of course not: Oberlin’s official statement was to double down and claim that “these actions were real” even if hoaxes because they provided a “teachable moment.” Oberlin’s attitude was thus akin to the Ratherian “fake but accurate” argument.

The day after Donald Trump shocked the world (and traumatized the wokesters) by defeating Hillary Clinton, an Oberlin student attempted to purchase a bottle of wine with a fake ID at Gibson’s Bakery, while also attempting to shoplift more merchandise. After being confronted by a store employee, the student fled and was then chased by the same employee. In the ensuing altercation, two other Oberlin students got involved. When police arrived, they arrested all three students on various charges. (Jumping ahead in the story, all three students ultimately pleaded guilty to the charges and admitted there had been no racial animus involved.)

The problem was that the three students arrested were African American. The wokesters on the Oberlin campus—already angry beyond words at the advent of President Trump with GOP control of both houses of Congress, and aware that any accusations of racism would be immediately accepted as true by the Oberlin administration—went after Gibson’s Bakery with a vengeance. They accused both the Bakery and the Gibson family of racist behavior and launched a cancel culture mob against them on social media and through protests in front of the store. The Oberlin administration, particularly Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, also sprang into action, not only supporting the students’ campaign against Gibson’s Bakery but, as reported in the court of appeals decision, also participating in it.

[Related: “Fighting Behind Enemy Lines: Three Tactics for Resisting Wokeness from Within”]

That Gibson’s Bakery had long-time African-American customers and employees who stood up for them was of no moment: the cancel mob had been unleashed, despite at least some of the protestors admitting they had no idea why Gibson’s Bakery was said to be racist or even what it was they were protesting. Indeed, the fliers distributed by the protestors (photocopied on Oberlin machines, with some allegedly copied by Raimondo herself) claimed that a Gibson’s employee had racially profiled and attacked the students—making no mention that all three had been arrested for shoplifting and that when police arrived, the three students had the Gibson employee on the ground and were beating him.

Predictably, Gibson’s Bakery’s business suffered dramatically from the protests and ensuing boycotts, but the Gibson family did not take what they considered to be libel, defamation, and tortious interference with their business lying down. Efforts to de-escalate the growing town-gown conflict were to no avail, with the Oberlin administration clearly more interested in avoiding anything that might antagonize the campus wokesters than mitigating the damage being inflicted on the Gibson family, or coming to grips with the fact that its students had committed crimes.

Not everyone at Oberlin thought this was a wise strategy. Oberlin theater professor Roger Copeland penned a letter to the campus newspaper, decrying the school’s “sentence first, verdict afterwards” approach and urging the university to face reality:

The facts of this case are no longer in question. And yet, a counter-narrative has taken hold, one that refuses to allow mere “facts” to get in the way…. At what point do you accept the empirical evidence, even if that means having to embrace an “inconvenient” truth?…The time has come for the Dean of Students, on behalf of the College, to apologize to the Gibson family for damaging not only their livelihood but something more precious and difficult to restore—their reputation and good standing in the community.

The measured and considered response of Dean of Students Raimondo to this letter?

Fuck him. I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us.

The Lawsuit

Despite even Oberlin Africana faculty recognizing that the Gibson family had, “to its credit, [done] all that it could to keep the matter from ever going to trial in the first place,” Oberlin could not be persuaded to climb down from its position, and the Gibson family ultimately sued both Oberlin and Raimondo. After considerable pretrial activity (including no shortage of “scorched earth” litigation tactics by Oberlin), and lots of interesting discovery as to what Oberlin faculty and administrators (especially Raimondo) were saying behind closed doors, the case was ultimately tried in 2019.

At the end of the first trial (which excluded punitive damage issues), the jury rejected Oberlin’s claims that it had merely been facilitating its students’ free speech, that it and its students were the victims (despite the involved students pleading guilty), and that the actual value of the 125-year-old business was only $35,000. The jury found against Oberlin and Raimondo, awarding the Gibson family over $11 million in compensatory damages.

Before the punitive damages trial could be held, Oberlin’s then-general counsel (Donica Thomas Varner) issued a blast e-mail to the Oberlin community criticizing the jury for disregarding “the clear evidence our team presented.” To say that was a boneheaded move is a severe understatement: I cannot imagine any marginally competent attorney making such a public statement with a punitive damages trial on deck. While Oberlin dodged one bullet when the trial court declined to allow the plaintiffs to call Varner as a witness in the second trial, it could not dodge them all, and the jury ultimately awarded another $33 million as punitive damages.

[Related: “Another Hopeful Sign: Hiers v. Board of Regents”]

Because Ohio has statutory caps on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded, the trial court reduced the amount of the potential judgment from $44 million to $25 million and then tacked on attorneys fees to make the final judgment $31.2 million. Oberlin appealed, claiming primarily that it cannot be held liable for the first amendment statements of its students. The Gibsons cross-appealed, challenging the constitutionality of the punitive damage caps (which, if accepted, would have restored the $33 million punitive damages award and pushed the amount of the total judgment against Oberlin to over $50 million). The 2019 judgment has also been accruing postjudgment interest since entry, making the current face amount of the judgment north of $34 million.

As noted above, the Ohio appellate court panel unanimously affirmed the judgment in full, rejecting Oberlin’s challenges to the judgment as well as the Gibson’s efforts to restore the full punitive damages award. While it is not impossible that the Ohio Supreme Court would accept an appeal from either side, most commentators I have spoken with do not expect that to happen (and if it does, they expect the court to affirm the judgment).

Regardless of what ultimately happens, the verdict has already produced tangible results. Raimondo and Varner are no longer employed by Oberlin, and Oberlin’s once-proud reputation has been severely battered. More importantly, the Gibson family’s reputation has been vindicated.

Lessons

What then are some of the lessons from this debacle for those willing to learn?

First, while the doctrines of CRT and wokeism may well be the preferred narrative of the faculty lounge and certain organizations, application of such doctrines often conflicts with well-settled law. When this conflict occurs and litigation ensues, a refusal to accept that such a blindered worldview might not be accepted by courts or juries is a recipe for disaster. Oberlin never appears to have taken seriously the possibility that anyone might require proof of its incendiary allegations of racism, or that it could be held to account for its participation in a campaign to destroy a local business. As I have indicated before, colleges embracing DEI initiatives and loyalty oaths while laughing at warnings that these practices likely violate decades of well-settled law may soon receive wake-up calls that make the Gibson’s Bakery judgment look like a trip to small claims court. (Watch the skies…I may have something to report on this front soon.)

Second, your position as a “woke” administrator isn’t impregnable armor. As Raimondo found out the hard way (and as is probably dawning on UCLA business school dean Antonio Bernardo), if you commit torts, you face personal liability. Even if you are a public employee who enjoys qualified immunity (which Raimondo was not), your qualified immunity evaporates when you violate clearly established law.

Third, as I have also seen in my own investigations of academia, the “true believers” of wokeism appear to lack filters when communicating with other members of their coven. Raimondo’s caustic e-mails cooked her goose and were likely the major reason why the jury bodyslammed Oberlin on both compensatory and punitive damages. The stupidity of Varner’s screed against the jury when it still had to decide punitive damages is exceeded only by her arrogance in sending it publicly to the entire Oberlin community. Those investigating on-campus hijinks should always look to obtain such materials lawfully (e.g., by public records requests, or by aggressive ESI discovery in litigation).

In a world where reality is an important commodity, a rational actor would view this case as a cautionary tale, and perhaps adjust their behavior accordingly. Unfortunately, on most campuses today, “feelz” trump reality, and administrators are more afraid of appearing “unwoke” than of suffering the consequences of not being the adult in the room. Thus, while Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin should serve as a warning to the wokesters, I rather doubt that they will listen.


Image: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Louis K. Bonham

Louis K. Bonham is an intellectual property litigator. He is a graduate of the University of Texas (BA ’83, JD ’86), was an Articles Editor on the Texas Law Review, and served as a law clerk to the Hon. Edith H. Jones of the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

40 thoughts on “Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College: The Warning to Wokesters

  1. I wonder why you didn’t print my post noting that, contrary to some posters here, the “left” didn’t support Oberlin in the Gibson’s dispute.

    1. Your comment must have been deleted by our system, as there are no comments currently awaiting moderation. Apologies for the error! We would be happy to post it if you resubmit it.

  2. Thirty-five million and counting. And so very much more when supplemented by all the rest of the financial fallout attached to this callout culture.
    Which my gut hunch says is still a tiny fraction of all the lost jobs, income, social standing and whatever else wokeism has cost citizens in otherwise good standing over the years.
    We are under the impression that this is a relatively new thing. It is not a new thing. The earliest incident I can recall was the infamous “water buffalo” affair at Penn State, in which an undergraduate by the name of Eden Jacobowitz was accused of a racial slur, that was actually a culturally correct expression straight from a Yiddish pedigree. The accusers would not have known that, though. And insisted on refusing to accept such an explanation.
    That happened in 1993, which is 29 years ago. Almost 3 decades. One can only wonder how many billions’ worth of callout fallout has occurred since then.

    So I scratch my head and wonder how it is that this Oberlin could be so hell-bent toward such a downfall. Sure, it’s a cautionary tale. But one that had many predecessors over the decades beforehand, and has had many follow ups since.
    Sometimes I’m lost for any viable solution to all of this, other than simply starving the beasts. Which is what we would expect to happen, when reasonably innocent people are attacked by a systemic predatory ideological appetite for human sacrifice.
    If a higher educational institution can be held to the highest standards and considered to be in possession of mandated preservation of the public trust, then betrayal of that trust should be dealt with in fair terms – even up to closing the institution down.
    What we’re dealing with here are people in positions of power who actually think they’re above the law. Why this is not obvious on so many counts astonishes me.

  3. Well, it turns out that the girl who kicked the hornets’ nest was ‘Helen’… and if Helen Hunter doesn’t actually exist, and it was necessary to invent her, who could possibly object? Either way, she is perfect as the outraged and slightly demented voice of the woke generation, and agent provocateur par excellence.

  4. From this and other accounts, the student-thieves who assaulted the Gibsons’ employee were honorable. They were young people who erred, admitted their errors and took their punishment, even though they were probably encouraged to lie. Someone should tell their story. I can forgive them. I cannot forgive Oberlin, a powerful institution trampling on average folks. How is that equitable? And by the way, there are a couple HBCUs in Ohio who would love to have a slice of that $900 million endowment, just saying. On equity, talk is cheap.

  5. Many commenters here seem to believe that all progressives (or “the left”) supported Oberlin in this matter. That is certainlay not the case. No left-of-center publication or spokesperson that I’m aware of took up the banner for Oberlin, because it quickly became apparent that Oberlin administrators foolishly decided to push a meritless case against Gibson’s.

  6. The town-gown conflict that you mentioned should not be underestimated, and probably exists (even in larger quantities) at other small-town liberal arts schools. Hard-working middle-class business owners (and their employees) and head-up-the-tuchus woke college administrators inhabit two different planets, with conflicting value systems that cannot — ever! — be reconciled.

    My guess is that had the Ohio appellate court overturned the decision, the townspeople would have just burned down the school.

    And to be honest (pace Michelle Malkin, an Oberlin alumna whom I greatly respect), I would have been quite comfortable with either outcome. The unanimous decision was justified, legally correct, and avoided a lot of risk to the local firefighters.

  7. Unfortunately, the woman most responsible for Oberlin being involved in this, Raimondo, has already moved on to another college and a better job. She is probably considered a hero of the Left there and will be totally unaffected by this judgment, even if Oberlin should go broke. As long as there is no personal responsibility for this behavior, it will be repeated.

    And for those of you wanting to defend Oberlin and think the facts are misstated here, the blog Legal Insurrection has been following the case in detail since it started. Read through their lengthy coverage and then tell me the facts above are wrong.

    1. “moved on to another college and a better job.”

      Certainly, she’s now at another college where she’s also the head honcho for student affairs. But a “better job”?

      Oberlin: Ranked #37 in National Liberal Arts Colleges (US News)
      Enrollment: about 2400
      Endowment: > $900 million
      Oglethorpe: Ranked #165 in National Liberal Arts Colleges (US News)
      Endowment: <$35 million
      Enrollment: about 1450

      I think by any rational metric, it's pretty clear she's come down in the world. Kind of like former UTexas President Fenves taking the job at Emory after a scandal involving his intervention in a sexual assualt disciplinary inquiry came to light. Spin it any way you like, but it's pretty clear it was a step down.

      Now Varner, on the other hand, definitely fell upwards, landing the GC position at Cornell . . . which is ironic given that the best reporting on the Gibson's Bakery case came from Bill Jacobson at the Cornell Law School. Go figure.

      1. I disagree — admin jobs are different and being THE big fish in a smaller pond is often preferable. And may pay better….

      2. It is simply amazing (to anyone not in a university) that such creatures get jobs anywhere, much less at another university, after totally completely and inexcusably blowing up in their previous employment. The only group that can give university administrators a run for their money for not being able to see a point are congresspeople.

    1. While I understand the humor, the field of Special Ed badly needs sane people going into it. Even by the standard of K-12 as a whole, SPED is a mess.

      Never forget that K-12 is where these crazy undergrads are coming from….

  8. What is astounding is the egregiousness of Oberlin’s behavior, the fact free accusations, the incitement, the smearing of hard working people, the denial of facts, the lack of acknowledgement that Oberlin students had been shoplifting for months at Gibson’s. Also Raimondo has a new gig at Oglethorpe. Also, Allyn and David Gibson died after the verdict but before the judgement (David was injured by the shoplifters).

    1. What struck ne was that this involved underaged drinking at Oberlin — an attempt of an underage student to first purchase and then steal alcohol.

      ETOH liability is a big issue and Gibsms would have been liable had they let the students steal the wine- not just to the Ohio licensing folk but anyone injured by the intoxi2ted minors. This includes OUI….

      I’m amazed that a Dean of Students, no matter how woke, didn’t instantly realize this. After all, had Gibsons been nonchalantly been providing alcohol to underaged Oberlin students, she’d been the first one making a fuss aboutt it.

      It isn’t the ’70s anymore — undergrad drinking is stomped on at every IHE that I’m aware of.

  9. Your use of the words “wokester” and “woke” and your dismissive attitude toward the reality of systemic racism show the axe you’re grinding happily into Oberlin’s centuries-old reputation for anti-racism. And makes me wonder if your take on any of the facts in this case can be trusted.

    1. I’m in complete agreement with Ms. Hunter.

      Furthermore, I don’t believe that any of this actually ever happened.

      1. Despite the “wokester” and “woke” words, the facts of the case are as described. Look up the Legal Insurrection articles on the topic to get the case file details then look the case up in the Ohio court files.

        Actually you don’t need to do all that. Just click the hyperlink under the word affirmed in the first line of paragraph 1 of the article you replied to.

      2. The “woke” and “wokester” labels are descriptive, expressions of the opinion of the writer. In this case, they’re far more justified than Raimondo’s incitements against Gibson’s – in fact, the jury’s verdicts support the author’s characterizations.

        As far as the ultimate facts are concerned, the jury’s verdict settles the matter – or at least, it ought to.

        These things happened, no matter how inconvenient you find them.

    2. Ah, yes, the Life Cycle of Lefty Branding:

      1) People of the left notice their brand has all sorts of negative connotations, so they invent a new brand and use it as a term of praise, while denouncing those who use the old brand as liars and bigots.
      2) The general population learn what the new brand means.
      3) The new brand acquires all the negative connotations of the old brand, because the cause of the negative connotations was always what was being described, not the branding.
      4) People of the left notice their brand has all sorts of negative connotations . . .

    3. Ms Hunter: You are Exhibit A in the congnitive impairment of the Woke in and out of academia. Is it your contention that black students ought to be able to shoplift? Is it your contention that resisting and prosecuting black shoplifters is wrong? You seem to be saying that when black people break the law, bringing them to account is wrong. I have followed this case from the beginning. Have you? I find this account of the Gibson’s travail to be accurate. Please tell us where you think it is in error.

    4. This trial was not about systemic racism. It was about whether the Oberlin College administration defamed the reputation of a local business. Oberlin’s lawyers and administrators doubled down on their mistakes and defended actions that were not and are not defensible. Oberlin had weeks of trial to refute the Gibson’s ample evidence. If Oberlin’s evidence should have prevailed, then Oberlin’s lawyers should be sued for malpractice for their failure to present it in a convincing way. As John Adams said when defending British soldiers after the Boston Massacre, and winning their acquittal, “Facts are stubborn things.”
      Gibsons +$31 ml, Oberlin -$100 ml or more.
      Game, Set, Match- Gibsons.

      The only people in this case who were more foolish than Oberlin’s administrators were Oberlin’s lawyers.

    5. Objection: Assertion of facts not in evidence, re, the existence of “systemic racism”. This is a concept asserted by CRT-based leftist activists and writers, and is solely dependent on their assertion that disparate outcomes can only be the result of this supposed “systemic racism”. However, given that there are plenty of alternative reasons for disparate outcomes, the concept of systemic racism is not only unproven, there is considerable evidence that it is simply false. The usual corollary of supposed white privilege (in which all whites are presumed guilty of sins or crimes of people wholly unconnected to them), is also a ridiculous and unfair concept.

      If one believes, as I do and I think the author does, that systemic racism is an invalid and highly divisive concept, then derogatory labeling of those advocating such a concept is not evidence of unreliability of opinions, at all. Leftist activists are quite fond of throwing far more derogatory labels, e.g. “fascists”, “Nazis”, “racists”, “bigots”, and the like.

      In other words, if you don’t like those labels, suck it up buttercup, because the vitriol in this discussion was entirely fomented by the left. The Enlightenment-based right is just fighting back.

    6. Systematic racism. You are as much an inhabitant of the bizarro world as Oberlin is. Woke is a disease that has to be eradicated for good. The fact of the case are too clearly established. Only people like you that still are true believers in the religion of wokeism refuse to see.

    7. Hi Helen

      Your use of the words “the reality of systemic racism” leave me pretty convinced you are an idiot. The facts here from day one are clear. Oberlin students acted like common street thugs & were caught. Then Oberlin doubled down on the myth of “systemic racism.” Now they have to pay. I couldn’t be happier.

      1. this is the best summary of the situation I have read. and yes Helen, this did happen. go read the Legal Insurrection pieces.

    8. Despite the “wokester” and “woke” words, the facts of the case are as described. Look up the Legal Insurrection articles on the topic to get the case file details then look the case up in the Ohio court files.

    9. Only a complete fool would say such things, and that appears to be you, Helen “Fool” Hunter. There is no “systematic racism”, except in the board room of Black Lies Matter.

    10. “Woke-ism,” “woke,” “wokester,” and any other word used to describe the radical left and their long march through our institutions, are perfectly appropriate for describing what is happening. This is true for this story, as it is across the nation.

      Spare us the “systemic racism” talk. We all know racism exists, and all decent people try to do what they can to end it. Today’s hard left isn’t really interested in “anti-racism.” It is interested in using “anti-racism” as a stick to beat down the natural reaction to the left’s increasingly obvious totalitarianism.

      Your comment above, otoh, exposes you as an apologist for the worst actions of today’s “activists” steeped in resentment and hatred of free speech and free expression.

      You are correct about one thing. Decent Americans, both liberal and conservative, DO have an axe to grind with the hard left. It is a perfectly justifiable response to their cultural hegemony and insane policies.

    11. If Oberlin has a “centuries-old” reputation for anti-racism, they don’t seem to be very good at it. After fighting something for centuries (plural), you’d think they would have fixed the problem.

      Apparently not…

    12. Oberlin has ruined it’s centuries old reputation for wisdom, scholarship and superior education all by itself. The facts are public record. If you can’t refute them, then you need to hop on your unicorn and ride on out of town.

    13. Your resort to vacuous complaints about language — “woke” was a term invented by the left, it’s rich to complain about it being applied to them after it has acquired, by their own behavior, considerable negative connotation — and vague hand waving at “systemic racism” — what, pray, is “systemic” racism and how would it differ from the ordinary sort? Perhaps by not being identifiable with any specific individual action by a specific person, but just vaguely in the air — in the “system” — like a miasma? — demonstrates admirably clearly the truth of the last sentence in this article.

    14. Most rational people acknowledge that systemic racism did occur in American History, about 50 years ago. But, today? Not so much. Of course, certain people will dig, dig, dig, and (surprise!) find racism everywhere. This is a flaw in wokester and woke behaviors, and if you don’t like being criticized for it, then cut it out.

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