By Nicole Wells
In a drawdown of legal hostilities, Oberlin College said Thursday that it would pay $36.59 million to a local bakery that claimed it was defamed and falsely accused of racism by the school after a shoplifting incident involving a Black student.
According to The New York Times, the 2016 clash with Gibson’s Bakery turned into a protracted legal battle that went beyond the Ohio college town and resulted in a national discussion on race, criminal justice, free speech and Oberlin’s role in holding students responsible.
Announced on Thursday, the decision by the college’s board of trustees came nine days after the college’s appeal of a lower-court ruling was rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court.
“Truth matters,” Lee E. Plakas, the Gibson family’s lawyer, told the Times in an email Thursday. “David, supported by a principled community, can still beat Goliath.”
Oberlin said in a statement that “this matter has been painful for everyone.”
“We hope that the end of the litigation will begin the healing of our entire community,” it added.
Calling the size of the judgment “significant,” the college said that “with careful financial planning,” including insurance, it could be paid “without impacting our academic and student experience.”
Oberlin has a substantial endowment of almost $1 billion, according to the Times.
Legal experts told the Times that the case centered on whether college officials had defamed the bakery and the verdict, which basically found that they had, would likely cause other colleges and universities to carefully consider joining student causes.
“Such a large amount is certainly going to make institutions around the country take notice, and to be very careful about the difference between supporting students and being part of a cause,” Neal Hutchens, a professor of higher education at the University of Kentucky, said. “It wasn’t so much the students speaking; it’s the institution accepting that statement uncritically. Sometimes you have to take a step back.”
According to court papers, the incident began in November 2016, when a Black student tried to buy a bottle of wine with a fake ID, while hiding two more bottles under his coat.
Allyn Gibson, the white son and grandson of the bakery’s owners, pursued the student out into the street, where two of the student’s friends, who were also Black Oberlin students, joined in an assault on Gibson. The students later pleaded guilty to several charges.
The incident led to two days of protests, with several hundred students gathered in front of the bakery accusing it of racial profiling, according to court papers.
A small liberal arts college in Ohio, Oberlin is known for producing students who are skilled in the arts and humanities and for its progressive politics, focusing on its history as a stop on the Underground Railroad and as one of the first colleges to admit Black students. Tuition costs more than $61,000 per year, with the overall cost of attendance exceeding $80,000 per year.