Wants venue transfer, claiming local media coverage of Gibson’s Bakery lawsuit “turned the tide of public opinion within Lorain County against Oberlin College…”
Oberlin College is struggling financially, after over a decade of intense national media coverage of extreme social justice activism on campus. The college has not met its enrollment goals resulting in a financial shortfall and talk about how to control expenses.
We first covered the financial fallout from enrollment decline in September 2017, Radical fallout: Oberlin College enrollment drops, causing financial problems.
An article this week in the student Oberlin Review notes that college president Carmen Ambar has been speaking to groups on campus about the problems:
To address the deficit, which currently sits at $3 million but is projected to increase to $9 million next year and to $20 million in following years, Ambar suggested adjusting housing and dining facilities to fit the smaller classes that Oberlin has enrolled in recent years — in the past 10 years, the College has only hit its enrollment goal of 2,950 students twice. Since 66 percent of Oberlin’s revenue comes from tuition, student enrollment is a significant factor in the resources Oberlin has to work with.
Against this backdrop of financial tribulations, we have been covering two major lawsuits against Oberlin.
In federal court an expelled male student has sued the college and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo. “John Doe” alleges alleging that the sexual assault hearing process was fundamentally biased against men, resulting in a 100% conviction rate for accused students who go through the hearing process. The federal court recently allowed the expelled male student to add allegations in an Amended Complaint. Oberlin likely will seek dismissal of the Amended Complaint.
While the federal suit concerns a disciplinary process that only directly affects students, a state court suit by local Gibson’s Bakery involves local community issues which threaten to turn into a full-blown town-gown feud. We have covered the Gibson Bakery story extensively.
The short version is that three Oberlin students were arrested for shoplifting at Gibson’s bakery. Oberlin students claimed racial profiling, and mounted protests and a boycott supported by college student groups, administrators and faculty.
The boycott continued even after police released data showing there was no racial profiling in shoplifting arrests at the bakery, and the three students pled guilty.
See these posts for background on the dispute:
- Bakery targeted by Oberlin College #BlackLivesMatter fights back
- Oberlin College halted purchases from Gibson’s Bakery targeted by #BlackLivesMatter, but may reconsider
Gibson’s sued the college and its Dean of Students, Meredith Raimondo, for defamation and multiple other claims. Oberlin moved to dismiss some of the claims, for trespass on a parking lot and for the negligent hiring, retention, or supervision of Raimondo. That motion was denied, so the case goes forward in full.
Please see these posts for full background on the legal proceedings:
- Gibson’s Bakery sues Oberlin College over racial profiling accusations, Oberlin cuts business ties
- Oberlin College lashes out at Gibson’s Bakery, portrays itself as victim
- Court: Gibson’s Bakery lawsuit against Oberlin College can continue in full
According to the court docket for the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas, the case is scheduled for jury trial on May 1, 2019.
Oberlin College, however, does not want the jury trial to take place in it’s home county, arguing it cannot get a fair trial. Oberlin College’s Motion to Transfer Venue (pdf.)(full embed at bottom of post) starts with the questionable tactic, which I have highlighted before, of attempting to accuse Gibson’s of racial discrimination and assault on the arrested and convicted students:
… On November 9, 2016, an Oberlin College student attempted to shoplift wine and purchase alcohol with a fake ID from Gibson’s Bakery. Allyn D. Gibson, a Gibson’s Bakery employee who was working at the time, confronted the student and ran after him when he exited the store. Allyn D. Gibson, a white male, then proceeded to initiate a physical bout with the accused shoplifter, a black male, on Oberlin College’s campus, as a crowd of students and community members watched. Many who witnessed or later heard about this incident believed that the physical altercation was racially motivated. From their vantage point, a white man chased and assaulted a black man without provocation and then two female black students intervened to protect the male student. These concerns were heightened when only the black students involved were arrested by the Oberlin Police Department officer who arrived on the scene in response to 911 calls
from some of those same witnesses who reported Allyn D. Gibson as the aggressor….
Oberlin then goes on to argue the college had no real involvement in the problems, again in an accusatory manner:
Plaintiffs now allege that they have suffered a loss of business as a result of the protests that occurred. They also assert that Oberlin College spearheaded the protests and defamed them by creating and distributing an allegedly defamatory flyer – all of which caused purported financial harm to Gibson’s Bakery. Indeed, Plaintiffs’ Complaint is fraught with allegations designed to portray themselves as victims wrongfully targeted by Defendants and the protestors when, in fact, many Oberlin students and community members were protesting the physical assault by Allyn D. Gibson on unarmed Oberlin students who did not initiate the physical struggle. Defendants never acted wrongfully or unlawfully. Indeed, they did not organize or sanction the protests or distribute flyers, and they never targeted or caused any harm to Plaintiffs….
From what I’ve seen so far, this narrative painted by Oberlin seems out of place with how the events unfolded. It’s a very risky strategy to accuse a business which was the victim of shoplifting to which the perps pleaded guilty of being racist, particularly when police statistics don’t seem to back it up. The boycott of Gibson’s was a full-blown campus feeding frenzy, and included the college itself cutting Gibson’s off from business. But Oberlin is entitled to present the defense it wants.
But the motion makes clear Oberlin doesn’t want to present that accusatory defense in a jury drawn from the local community, arguing that misleading news coverage has tainted the jury pool:
Despite Defendants’ lack of involvement in the protests, and their concern for Oberlin College and the Lorain County community, the media coverage within Lorain County of this case and the events giving rise to it has been sensationalized and has not been accurate or impartial.
As a result, the jury pool has been poisoned and Defendants Oberlin College and Dr. Meredith Raimondo cannot receive a fair and impartial trial in Lorain County, Ohio.
Accordingly, Defendants respectfully request that this case be transferred without delay to the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas.
The motion then goes on to detail the press coverage, and argues there we inaccuracies. That seems like thin gruel for the motion, as prospective jurors could be questioned on what they’ve seen in the media.
Oberlin then cites comments to the news articles as reflecting the local public mood, though it’s hard to tell from the comments how many were by local people, since the Gibson’s case received national media attention.
The initial reporting of the lawsuit swiftly turned the tide of public opinion within Lorain County against Oberlin College and Dr. Raimondo. Readers of local newspapers forcefully declared how they would rule in any trial. For example, the two daily Lorain County newspapers included these disturbing comments:
• “I hope Gibsons wins this lawsuit”;
• “The college, by their breach of contract, has punished Gibsons, . .. have, they punished any of the students involved, or did they just give them a hug?”;
• “Gatta go with a Jury Trial. .. Juries can multiply damages”;
• “They [Plaintiffs] should have asked for a LOT more”;
• “Good!! I hope the owners of the store win and win big-time”;
• “Hope they win … Take down the Clown College”; and
• “Hey Oberlin open up your wallet and dig deep.”
Oberlin also says it has been receiving negative messages:
In addition, Oberlin College received numerous voicemail messages that further evidence that the jury pool has become tainted. Specifically, the messages revealed that many citizens had improperly determined that Oberlin College was already liable for Plaintiffs’ claims:
• “You guys should be ashamed of yourselves. You liberal, radical, disgusting human beings. I’m going to do everything in [my] power to gather as many people as I can to protest against you. You, you talk about racist. You guys are disgusting. You’re despicable. And I’m gonna gather as many people as I can to go out and boycott against you and your campus. You’re evil, evil, evil people. You should be ashamed of yourself.” (Message received on 12/9/2017)
• “I was figuring I’d get a recording and not an actual human. Not sure if there are any of those there at this college. But I’m calling concerning what was on the internet the other day. You need to get a paycheck but there are other students that have a little higher quality than apparently some of your students that you have now are. The thugs that attempted to do the stealing is [sic] in the wrong and for adult to be leader [sic] of a higher learning institution needs to realize what common sense is and not the black thugs. Thugs are thugs. Get’ em out of your college and let students that have some common sense and have some morals and won’t make America great can enter your school. It’s just ridiculous you backing thugs. I mean there’s just no reason why you should do that. They are clearly in the wrong.” (Message received on 12/9/2017)
• “I’m calling perhaps hopefully with many other people to express and actually a bit of sadness but certainly dissatisfaction the way Oberlin’s administration, faculty and students have treated a business who wanted some justice for theft. I can’t imagine any reason the college would support boycotting because someone was called on [sic] for theft of a store.” (Message received on 12/9/2017)
This all seems weak to me. Any high publicity case anywhere gets a lot of media coverage. It’s a high bar to hurdle to prove the jury pool has been so tainted that a fair trial cannot be had.
A bigger problem, though one that doesn’t require transfer, is that a large number of people in the local community will be excluded. Anyone with personal or family ties to Oberlin will be excluded. So too would anyone who knows the Gibson family or even shopped at the store.
There’s no reason that the remaining jury pool would be legally biased. The socio-economic profile of that remaining pool may not be favorable to Oberlin College, and may not appreciate the accusatory nature of Oberlin’s defense against a business that caught shoplifters. But that doesn’t require a change of venue.
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