By Bill Pan
An Ohio appeals court has upheld a lower court ruling that awarded over $32 million to a family-owned bakery that was almost pushed out of business because of false accusations of racial profiling.
A panel of three judges on Ohio’s 9th District Court of Appeals on Friday unanimously ruled in favor of Gibson’s Bakery, which was initially awarded by a county judge more than $40 million in punitive and compensatory damages in its defamation lawsuit against Oberlin College. The amount was later reduced to $25 million with $6 million for lawyers’ fees.
The lawsuit stems from a shoplifting incident at Gibson’s Bakery, a 5th generation family business that has been serving the college town of Oberlin, Ohio, since 1885. In November 2016, store clerk Allyn D. Gibson caught a black Oberlin student stealing wine bottles from the store. He was joined by two other black Oberlin students in the ensuing confrontation before police arrived and arrested them.
The students pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in 2017 and acknowledged in court that the clerk’s actions were not racially motivated. But that didn’t stop Oberlin officials and students from organizing protests outside the bakery, during which protesters demanded customers to shop elsewhere.
According to court filings, Oberlin’s Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, along with other staff, were involved in the distribution of flyers that were handed out at the protests. The flyers, titled “DON’T BUY,” urged a boycott of the bakery, asserting that it was a “RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT OF RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.” The college’s supplier of food for its dining halls was also told by Reimondo to halt ordering from the Gibsons.
The Gibsons sued Oreblin in 2017, alleging “significant financial and emotional damages” caused by the college’s actions, including repeated vandalism, property damage, and harassment over the months following the shoplifting incident. In June 2019, a Lorain County jury found Oberlin acted inappropriately toward the bakery, a decision the college appealed.
Oberlin argued that the flyer contained only “opinions” that the Gibsons were racists, which would have been protected by the First Amendment. The appeal court dismissed the argument, saying that the flyer included much more than just opinions.
“Given the public’s lack of knowledge of what had happened at the bakery and the ongoing tension on campus about racial injustice, these statements would convey to a reasonable reader that the arrest and alleged assault at the bakery were racially motivated, that the Gibsons had a verifiable history of racially profiling shoplifters on that basis for years, and that those facts were a reason to boycott the bakery,” the judges wrote.
“The trial court did not err in concluding, as a matter of law, that these were actionable statements of fact, not constitutionally protected opinion,” they added.
Owen Rarric, an attorney for the Gibsons, applauded the ruling.
“The Gibson family appreciates the Court of Appeals’ thorough and thoughtful analysis which rightly rejected all of Oberlin College’s and Dean Raimondo’s challenges on appeal,” he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Oberlin College said they are “obviously disappointed” and are “reviewing the court’s opinion carefully” to determine their next steps.
Two of the case’s leading plaintiffs didn’t live to see the appeals court verdict. David Gibson, the bakery’s owner, died in 2019 of pancreatic cancer. Allyn W., father of David and grandfather of Allyn D. Gibson, passed away this February at the age of 93.
After the 2019 court victory, Allyn W. Gibson said he hoped people understand that his family had nothing against Oberlin students.
“I have been here my whole life and I love the students and the energy they bring to our community, and people who know me know I always love being with them,” the family patriarch told conservative news site Legal Insurrection. “Students can be great people or they can be bad, just like all of us can be, but they need guidance at that age, and they weren’t getting it when this all started.”