Oberlin College President: $44 Million Price Tag on Free Speech Should Worry Conservatives, Too

An Ohio jury has put a $44 million price tag on free speech at Oberlin College, a decision the school's president said should raise concerns among conservatives and progressives alike.

In 2016, Oberlin students protested Gibson's Bakery following a physical altercation between a white employee and a student of color, which subsequently resulted in the arrest of three students. Demonstrators claimed the Gibson family was prejudiced and encouraged a boycott of the "racist establishment."

As part of a plea deal, the accused students accepted responsibility for their behavior and issued statements that the bakery wasn't racist. About a year later, the business filed a defamation lawsuit against the private liberal arts college, alleging the school made libelous claims. In June, a jury agreed. Co-owners David and Allyn Gibson and the business were collectively awarded $11,074,500 in compensatory damages and $33,223,500 in punitive damages.

Oberlin filed a motion to cap the damages, claiming pursuant to Ohio law, the maximum amount of compensatory and punitive damages the Gibsons could receive was $14,023,500.

While the school and business continue to battle in court, President Carmen Twillie Ambar told Newsweek that the liability assigned to the school in a case she said centered on free speech set a "dangerous precedent."

"Progressives and conservatives should be concerned about this because from the conservative perspective, this might not have been speech that you believe was the right speech, but tomorrow it will be speech that you do value," Ambar said.

oberlin college gibson's bakery trial lawsuit
Oberlin College and Gibson's Bakery and Food Mart face off in court over claims made by Gibson's that Oberlin defamed the business. Google Maps

Lee Plakas, one of the Gibsons' attorneys, countered that the "concerning" part of the aftermath of the verdict was Oberlin's efforts to "reframe this as a First Amendment issue." He noted that libelous statements aren't protected by the First Amendment and the trial was about the school's action.

"The First Amendment provides students the right to free speech, but it does not protect institutions that join in and propagate lies," Plakas told Newsweek.

In awarding the plaintiffs such significant damages, Plakas said the jury sent a strong, clear message, "that the truth still matters."

At the beginning of the trial, Lorain County Common Pleas Judge John R. Miraldi ruled the language students used during the protest—accusing both the Gibson family and their business of racism—was constitutionally protected free speech.

In the lawsuit, the Gibsons claimed the school provided food to protesters and that Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo handed out incendiary flyers produced on an Oberlin copier machine. The suit also alleged the administrator actively participated in the demonstration. Ambar maintained that the college, nor its faculty acting as a representative of the institution, encouraged or participated in the protests.

Raimondo, Ambar said, was at the protest due to the handbook requiring the dean of students to be present to ensure student safety and legal compliance. While some accounts referenced in the suit have Raimondo using a bullhorn to echo the students' message, Ambar claimed she used the bullhorn to explain her presence and role at the protest.

"If the college hadn't been there and something had happened that was violence or property damage, I think people would have said the opposite. 'Where were you? Why weren't you there? Why weren't you trying to de-escalate this?'" Ambar said. "In some ways, whatever action the college does or doesn't do, people are saying we should be held responsible. That's an unsustainable outcome."

Plakas argued that the school's actions went "far beyond" ensuring students were safe and their First Amendment rights were protected.

During the six-week trial, the plaintiffs claimed Oberlin supported the students' messaging about racism, but college representatives argued it couldn't be held liable for others' actions. Ambar acknowledged the incident was harmful to the Gibson family, but maintained that Oberlin didn't produce the libelous material and said the line of a college aiding and abetting students is "impossible to draw."

However, the jury ultimately determined the institution played an active role in defaming the business. At this time, Oberlin is considering its options, according to its website, including possibly appealing the verdict.

This article has been updated to include comments from attorney Lee Plakas.