Lawyer: Oberlin continues to “bully and financially strangle a century-old local business for refusing to succumb to the College’s demand that Gibson’s ignore student shoplifting”
A year ago almost to the day, we covered a dispute involving Oberlin College students and a local bakery, Gibson’s Bakery.
The Oberlin students, with the support of some faculty and staff, accused the bakery of racial profiling three Oberlin students who were arrested for shoplifting. Those three students eventually pleaded guilty, and police stats showed that Gibson’s did not engage in racial profiling. Nonetheless, the turmoil has continued, and Gibson’s is suing claiming a continuing campaign to strangle its business.
Protests and Boycotts After Shoplifting Arrests
Our prior post covered the background of the dispute in great detail, Bakery targeted by Oberlin College #BlackLivesMatter fights back:
On November 9, 2016, Gibson’s employees noticed what they thought was a person shoplifting two bottles of wine hidden in his jacket. That alleged shoplifter was a black Oberlin College student. When they attempted to stop and photograph him, they were attacked by several other people accompanying the student.
The police were called. The Oberlin town police department has posted the Incident Reportonline, reflecting the arrest of the alleged shoplifter and two others involved in the scuffle. …
What could have been a simple shoplifting incident and arrest created a firestorm when Oberlin College students, including the Black Student Union, Student Senate and College Democrats, alleged racial profiling and launched a boycott of Gibson’s. Protests were launched outside the bakery….
Oberlin College Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo provided this statement to Legal Insurrection in response to the news report that she was passing out literature accusing Gibson’s of racism:
Information and literature available at the protest was prepared by organizers, not the college. I passed along a flyer that was circulating among the crowd to a news tribune reporter who was seeking information from students about what was taking place. I did not prepare the flyer and do not have a copy of the flyer. My presence was to help ensure that a safe environment was maintained.
… The Oberlin Student Senate passed a resolution calling for a boycott of Gibson’s ….
As noted in that post, the college issued a statement which at least implicitly endorsed the boycott:
Oberlin halted purchases from Gibson’s, but eventually resumed business.
… Regarding the incident at Gibson’s, we are deeply troubled because we have heard from students that there is more to the story than what has been generally reported. We will commit every resource to determining the full and true narrative, including exploring whether this is a pattern and not an isolated incident. We are dedicated to a campus and community that treats all faculty, staff and students fairly and without discrimination. We expect that our community businesses and friends share the same values and commitments.
….We will continue to work on these matters in the coming days to make sure that our students, staff, and faculty can feel safe and secure throughout our town.
We are grateful for the determination of our students and for the leadership demonstrated by Student Senate….
Vice President and Dean of Students
The community rallied around the Bakery:
All Three Students Plead Guilty
Eventually, the three students detained for shoplifting pleaded guilty to misdemeanors:
The three Oberlin College students accused of trying to steal wine from Gibson’s Bakery in Oberlin and then allegedly beating the store’s employee when he tried to detain them pleaded guilty Friday to amended misdemeanor charges.
The deal calls for them to receive no jail time and to pay restitution.
Common Pleas Judge James Miraldi delivered the sentencing Friday afternoon after several tense hours of negotiations between the parties.
Jonathan Aladin, 20, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of attempted theft, aggravated trespassing and underage purchase of alcohol.
Endia Lawrence and Cecelia Whettstone, both 19, pleaded guilty to attempted theft and aggravated trespassing.
But the story wasn’t over.
Gibson’s Files A Lawsuit
The Chronicle-Telegram reports:
Gibson’s Bakery has filed a lawsuit against Oberlin College, prompting the college to once again sever business ties with the shop.
The lawsuit lays out a narrative in which Oberlin College — trying to recover its image of being supportive of the African American community after firing a professor who is black, and with business interests in wanting to buy the Gibson property and adjacent parking lot – latched on to a shoplifting incident to promote Gibson’s as a racist establishment to bolster its own image and interests.
It was filed Tuesday in Lorain County Common Pleas Court and names the college and Meredith Raimondo, vice president and dean of students, as defendants.
The complaint accuses the college of libel, slander, interference with business relationships, interference with contracts, deceptive trade practices, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent hiring, and trespass and asks for more than $200,000 in damages.
The Morning Journal adds more detail:
The suit alleges, despite the Oberlin Police Department releasing the incident report refuting the racial narrative, the college persisted in assisting students in protesting the store to bolster an attempt to brand the college as having a ”legacy of being a strong advocate for and a strong supporter of African American students and racial minorities.”
Aladin offered prosecutors to plead guilty to the charge of theft and Oberlin College was aware of that when a member of the board of trustees paid a retainer for an attorney to fight the charges and the college allegedly paid for a limo to take Aladin to Columbus and meet with the lawyer, the complaint says.
David Gibson felt pressure to approve a plea agreement in the case, the suit says.
However, Oberlin Municipal Court Judge Thomas A. Januzzi denied the agreement citing the seriousness of a second-degree felony robbery charge that was intended to be dropped in the deal, and the loss of money the bakery was undergoing due to protests by Oberlin College students, according to the suit.
The protests involved hundreds of students, deans, professors and college staff filling the sidewalks in front of the business and disseminating a flyer the suit identifies as libelous, the complaint says.
The flyer claims the business “is a racist establishment with a long account of racial profiling and discrimination,” and urging customers to shop elsewhere, the suit says.
The flyer also identified 10 of the bakery’s competitors again urging consumers to not patronize Gibson’s, according to the suit.
The Oberlin Police Department investigated the claims of racism against the bakery and found that “of the 40 adults arrested for shoplifting at Gibson’s Bakery in the past five years, only six were African American,” the suits says.
In addition to the allegations summarized in the news articles above, the Complaint ties the College’s actions to pressure it was under from social justice protesters on campus. The Complaint references a 14-page list of student demands, including demands for tenure of Joy Karega, who ultimately was relieved of her teaching duties after a series of anti-Semitic Facebook posts.
From the Complaint:
11. In approximately December 2015, Oberlin College came under pressure for its treatment of African-American students.
12. In approximately December 2015, students sent a 14-page list of demands to Oberlin College’s Board of Trustees, Oberlin College’s President Marvin Krislov, and Oberlin College’s senior leadership.
13. As part of that 14-page list of demands, the students asserted that:
Oberlin College and Conservatory is an unethical institution… In the 1830s, this school claimed a legacy of supporting its Black students. However, that legacy has amounted to nothing more than a public relations campaign initiated to benefit the image of the institution and not the Africana people it was set out for.
14. One of the students’ demands was that Oberlin College offer “guaranteed tenure” to Joy Karega, an African-American professor who had written articles claiming that Israeli and U.S. Intelligence agencies fund ISIS and that Israel planned the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. At the time, Joy Karega was an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric & Composition at Oberlin College.
* * *
19. Oberlin College conducted hearings concerning the continued employment of Professor Karega and, by early November 2016, Oberlin College made its determination that it would be terminating Karega’ s employment, notwithstanding demands from its student organizations.
20. Defendants were aware that termination of Professor Karega would prove unpopular with students on campus, including those who supported the African-American students’ list of demands that called for Karega’ s “guaranteed tenure.”
As part of this alleged pressure Oberlin was feeling, Gibson’s alleges Oberlin tried to get Gibson’s to offer what the Complaint calls a “FIRST-TIME SHOPLIFTER’S PASS”:
69. In a subsequent meeting between Raimondo and David Gibson, Oberlin College also insisted that Gibson’s Bakery call Raimondo when students are caught stealing rather than informing the police.
70. David Gibson believed the policy would be inconsistent with his core belief that an educational institution of higher learning should be teaching its students not to commit robbery and theft, instead of sheltering and excusing that criminal activity.
71. Again, David Gibson did not agree to such a request and Oberlin College continued to attempt to steamroll and intimidate Gibson’s Bakery and refused to retract its defamatory statements or reinstate its business with Gibson’s Bakery.
72. Thus, Oberlin College took a position that sacrificed the commitment to the rule of law and the safety of the Oberlin community in favor of its desire to promote the business and marketing plan and public relations image of Oberlin College. In doing so, Oberlin College by example, words, and conduct exploited its students and taught them that it is permissible to harm community members without fear of repercussion. For instance, Oberlin College’s demand for the “first-time offender” rule also promoted large scale thefts because if students would not be prosecuted for their first theft offense, they would be encouraged to steal as much merchandise as possible during each offense until caught for the first time.
The Complaint alleges a concerted effort by Oberlin to damage Gibson’s business by repeating the false allegations of racial profiling:
75. Oberlin College eventually allowed Bon Appetit to reinstate its business with Gibson’s Bakery in February 2017; however, Defendants refused to retract the defamatory statements that had been made.
76. Over the years prior to the defamation described herein, a substantial portion of Gibson Bakery’s revenue derived from direct purchases by students, professors, and administrators of Oberlin College. At all times relevant, Defendants were fully aware of that fact.
77. As a direct result of Defendants’ conduct, as described herein, Gibson’s Bakery has suffered a severe and sustained loss of student, professor, administrative, and college department business and continued losses are further perpetuated by Oberlin College.
78. For example, during campus tours sponsored by Oberlin College – Oberlin College’s guides advise prospective and future students and their families not to shop at Gibson’s Bakery because it is a “racist establishment” that “assaults students.”
The Complaint also alleges that Oberlin has its sights set on a parking area adjacent to campus owned by Gibson’s:
OBERLIN COLLEGE COVETS GIBSON’S WELL-SITUATED LAND
60. Upon information and belief, Oberlin College desires to harm and/or acquire the Gibson Bakery business, the Gibson Bakery property, and the real property owned by Off Street Parking, Inc. (“OSP”). David Gibson recently acquired the controlling interest in OSP. OSP is the owner of the parking lot immediately contiguous to Oberlin College, and it is supposed to be for the exclusive use of patrons of the downtown businesses, including Plaintiffs’ business.
61. Oberlin College has encouraged, facilitated, and permitted its professors, administrators, faculty, students, and third party contractors to use the parking lot notwithstanding that OSP has advised the individuals and Oberlin College to stop parking in the lot, issued parking notice violations to offenders, and has had vehicles towed.
62. During most of the month of August 2017, Oberlin College instructed its construction contractors to park vehicles and large construction equipment and otherwise use the parking lot, obstructing access to the parking lot and parking spaces within the lot.
Oberlin Denies, Cuts Business Ties
Scott Wargo, Director of Media Relations for Oberlin, provided this statement to Legal Insurrection, denying the accusations against the college and Raimondo:
Oberlin College and Dr. Raimondo deny and reject all claims asserted in the lawsuit filed by Gibson Bros., Inc. in the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas. The allegations are untrue and we will vigorously defend against them.
The College values its long relationship with the town of Oberlin and its businesses, including Gibson’s Bakery. We are saddened that the Gibson family has chosen to pursue litigation. As this is now a legal matter, the College will suspend, effective immediately, its business relationships with Gibson’s Bakery until such time as a mutually productive relationship may be re-established.
We will have no further public comment on this matter.
Legal Insurrection obtained an email sent to Oberlin faculty and staff by Oberlin’s Finance and Administration department:
Dear Faculty and Staff,
I am writing to inform you that Gibson Bros., Inc. has filed a lawsuit against Oberlin College and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo in the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas. The College and Dr. Raimondo deny and reject all claims asserted in the lawsuit and we will vigorously defend against them.
Because of the litigation initiated against the College, all College business with Gibson’s, i.e., purchases with College funds, is prohibited effective as of November 10, 2017, and until further notice. Orders approved previously that are scheduled to be completed by Nov 17 will be processed.
Thank you for your cooperation in this matter.
Gibson’s Attorney: Oberlin Attempting to Strangle a Local Business
In response to Oberlin’s moves, Gibson’s attorney, Owen J. Rarric, Esq., provided this statement to Legal Insurrection:
The complaint filed this week identifies Oberlin College’s troubling conduct in attempting to bully and financially strangle a century-old local business for refusing to succumb to the College’s demand that Gibson’s ignore student shoplifting.
In response to Gibson’s resisting such bullying tactics, the College has further tightened the economic squeeze by cancelling business with Gibson’s.
The example that Oberlin College is setting is that if an institution is powerful, that institution and its members do not have to follow the Rule of Law.
I presume that Oberlin will seek dismissal of the lawsuit on the claim that Gibson’s fails to state a legal claim upon which relief can be granted. Even if the college wins, it loses.
Town-Gown Fight About To Get Worse, And Oberlin Loses Regardless of Lawsuit Outcome
As reported earlier, Oberlin already has suffered a decline in enrollment and related budget shortfalls, likely related to years of aggressive activism, Radical fallout: Oberlin College enrollment drops, causing financial problems:
While a general higher ed bubble, particularly for small liberal arts colleges, may be contributing to the decline, it’s hard to believe that Oberlin’s recent history of turmoil isn’t a contributing factor.
When given the choice of similar colleges, it would be logical for prospective students to stay away from the ones that are constantly generating negative headlines and appear to be bastions of radicalism.
Are the social justice chickens finally coming home to roost at Oberlin?
A bitter town-gown fight is not what Oberlin College needs. But it appears inevitable, as the student newspaper just called for a boycott of Gibson’s in retaliation for the lawsuit, Students Should Not Engage Gibson’s as Lawsuit Ensues:
As the College severs its business ties with Gibson’s for the second time in a year, students should maintain their commitment to doing the same. There are few acts of protest so quiet yet so powerful as the decision to not patronize a specific establishment because of fundamental disagreement with what it stands for. There are also few responses so appropriate to the situation we now must grapple with.
Gibson’s, feeling the economic squeeze from an alleged continuing defamation of the bakery and damage to the bakery’s business, felt it had no other choice but to fight back.
We’ll continue to follow this story.
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