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Oberlin College president says Gibson's lawsuit result has 'profound, chilling effect on free speech'

A jury awarded the Gibson family and Gibson’s Bakery a total of more than $44 million, including $33.2 million in punitive damages, finding that the college libeled the bakery during and after 2016 student protests

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    Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar in her office Sept. 24.

    STEVE MANHEIM / CHRONICLE FILE

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OBERLIN — In a Monday morning news conference, Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar said the outcome of the Gibson’s Bakery lawsuit will have a lasting effect on the college and similar institutions concerning free speech.

“The notion that (Oberlin College) can now be held vicariously liable for the students’ speech because of its efforts to de-escalate the protest would have a profound, chilling effect on free speech,” she said.

Due to the recent verdict, Ambar said, many colleges will have to censor and have close control on what debates or speech come from their students.

A jury awarded the Gibson family and Gibson’s Bakery a total of more than $44 million, including $33.2 million in punitive damages in a judgment against Oberlin College, finding that the college libeled the bakery during and after student protests there in November 2016.

The news conference followed a letter Ambar released last week regarding the lawsuit.

The June 17 letter from Ambar, sent to Oberlin alumni, faculty and staff, was an introduction to a set of frequently asked questions to “bring to the fore the facts” of the case. The FAQ letter stated the college stands by the students’ constitutional right to protest the bakery.

The rift between the bakery and college started in November 2016, after a student attempted to buy alcohol with a fake ID and shoplift from the store. Bakery employee Allyn D. Gibson, son of the bakery’s owner, followed the student out of the store and the two got into a physical altercation.

Police stated when they arrived that three students were hitting Allyn D. Gibson while he was on the ground. Allyn D. Gibson is white and the three students are black, which sparked claims during student protests that Gibson’s Bakery was racist.

The students were arrested and pleaded guilty in August 2017 to misdemeanor charges, acknowledging in court that Allyn D. Gibson was within his right to detain the shoplifter and that his actions were not racially motivated.

Students protested outside Gibson’s Bakery for two days after the incident, passing out flyers urging people to boycott the bakery and alleging that the business engaged in racial profiling. Following student protests, a boycott of the business and a brief cease in business relations between the college and bakery, the family filed a civil suit against the college in November 2017.

During the news conference, Ambar said — as she had in the letter — that due to college policy, Meredith Raimondo, the college’s vice president and dean of students, must be present at all protests to ensure student safety, but that was the extent of her involvement.

During the trial, Jason Hawk, editor of the Oberlin News-Tribune, testified that students were shouting obscenities at him, calling him names and even spitting at him. Hawk also said Raimondo approached him while he was at the scene, which he was covering for the weekly publication.

Hawk said Raimondo tried to block him from taking photos and gave him a copy of the flyer students were circulating that declared Gibson’s Bakery to be a racist establishment with a history of racial profiling.

In addition, Ambar said the settlement should not immediately affect the college’s financial budget as more legal actions involving the case are continuing.

The college had a projected deficit of about $5 million for fiscal year 2018, according to a letter from Ambar, Board of Trustees Chair Chris Canavan and Vice Chair Chesley Maddox-Dorsey last year.

Contact Bruce Walton at (440) 329-7123 or bwalton@chroniclet.com. Follow him on Facebook @BWalton440 or Twitter @BruceWalton.


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