Ultra-Progressive College Hit with $11M in Damages for Taking Sides in Racial Profiling Case That Wasn’t

Oberlin College, long known for being ultra-progressive–even with respect to other liberal arts colleges–was just handed a painful legal defeat. An Ohio jury on Friday handed down a $11.2 million verdict against the school for encouraging the boycott of a local bakery. That boycott was meant to protest racial profiling after three black students were arrested. The only problem was that it wasn’t profiling after all.

The day after the 2016 election, three African American students from Oberlin College were arrested for attempting to steal bottles of wine from Gibson’s Bakery, a convenience store located in the nearby town square. Racial tensions being especially high, especially at a college so known for its liberalism, Oberlin’s Student Senate declared the incident a case of racial profiling, and immediately passed a resolution ceasing all support for Gibson’s Bakery.

Shortly thereafter, Oberlin’s administration opted to send out an email blast. The message, signed by Oberlin President Marvin Krislov and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, offered some comforting words to the student body:

This has been a difficult few days for our community, not simply because of the events at Gibson’s Bakery, but because of the fears and concerns that many are feeling in response to the outcome of the presidential election. We write foremost to acknowledge the pain and sadness that many of you are experiencing. We want you to know that the administration, faculty, and staff are here to support you as we work through this moment together.

The email went on to promise to “commit every resource to determining the full and true narrative, including exploring whether this is a pattern and not an isolated incident,” and demanded that Oberlin’s community and businesses share the school’s commitment against discrimination.  As was predictable at a liberal bastion like Oberlin, activism ensued. Students began protesting the century-old Gibson’s, and people, including Dean Raimondo herself, handed out flyers urging a boycott because of Gibson’s long history of racial profiling.

The problem, though, was that Oberlin seems to have gotten the entire incident dead wrong. The three students arrested had attempted to shoplift; during later court proceedings, they admitted they hadn’t been racially profiled and said that they’d been involved in a physical altercation with a Gibson’s employee during the incident. One of the students, Jonathan Aladin, was charged with robbery, while the other two were charged with first-degree misdemeanor assault. All three pleaded guilty in public proceedings.

Gibson’s Bakery sued Oberlin for defamation, claiming that the school’s administrators knew or should have known that the student arrests were legitimate and not the result of any discriminatory practices. The Ohio jury sided with Gibson’s, and awarded a whopping $11.2 million in damages. While Oberlin is likely reeling from the loss, there may still be more to come. There will be a separate hearing next Tuesday to determine whether the enormous verdict should be tripled to $33 million.

Defendant Oberlin College is likely to argue that increased damages are inappropriate. At the trial phase, Oberlin argued that even if it was liable for defamation, Gibson’s Bakery was worth only $35K; that argument failed miserably. The point that Oberlin’s annual tuition is over $70,000 was likely not lost on the jury.

[image via screenshot/HOVTL News]

Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. She is a frequent media contributor, and is Of Counsel to Smedley & Lis, in Woodbury, New Jersey. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos

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