Plaintiffs have rested their case, and survived a motion for a directed verdict, in Gibson Bros. v. Oberlin College. The events giving rise to the lawsuit have been said to represent “the worst of identity politics.”  You can read about some of the background on this case here.

This weekend has been the Oberlin College commencement weekend, and the school combines that with a reunion of alums. I attended various events, and talked to a number of alums about the recent lawsuits involving Gibson’s Bakery and Oberlin College. Here’s what I found.

Not one of the 20 or so alums I spoke with heard anything about their school being accused in court of racist defamation of a town business. All of them, however, knew what Gibson’s was because they used to shop there when they were students. Some of these people I spoke with were from Class of 1969, some from class of 2007. And lots of years in between

It didn’t matter if the alums I spoke with were in civil rights work (found some of them that were), higher education or in the private business sector. Race didn’t matter either: no one had heard of this case regardless of color or ethnicity. Most all said they would likely pay attention to an issue like this even if it wasn’t their school – recent university campus free speech issues were things they followed – but all were surprised that that school has never kept the alums informed. At all.

“I am sort of surprised the alumni aren’t sharing this around given that this school has always kept civil rights and protests and free speech in the forefront,” said one woman who graduated in the mid-1980s and works for East Coast foundation that helps people with federal safety net entitlement programs

Nearly everyone I spoke with, however, said they would want to learn more about it.

I’ve found this interesting in many respects. This school, at most every alum event this weekend, was reminding the alums they had to pony up money to keep their dear school up at the highest levels of learning for future generations. They also were reminding them of the problems every college and university was having in this country, from perception to funding to purpose. How now is the time to fix things.

The only mention of the case publicly by the school was in the student newspaper The Oberlin Review’s “Commencement Issue 2019: The Year in Review” issue. It was the story that ran on April 26 before the trial started.

Here is how the paper described that shoplifting and the protest. This sanitized version was really the only information for the alums to see while in Oberlin if they picked it up and read:

“The current tension between the College and Gibson’s began in November 2016 when a Black student attempted to make a purchase at Gibson’s Bakery and was accused of shoplifting. The student ran outside the store and Allyn Gibson, the son of owner David Gibson, followed him. Gibson allegedly tackled the student, and the two got into a physical altercation. Two of the student’s friends saw the altercation and began hitting and pulling on Gibson to get him away from the student.

“A customer in the shop saw the altercation and called the Oberlin Police Department out of concern for the students’ safety. When the police arrived, they immediately arrested the three Black students and refused to take statements from some students and witnesses who were present.”

“After the arrest, students organized a 12-hour boycott outside Gibson’s Bakery to protest what they characterized as racial profiling from Allyn Gibson, who is white, as well as the Oberlin Police Department.”

Also in the story was a PR statement from Oberlin Director of Media Relations Scott Wargo:

“The court has notified Oberlin College that … the Gibsons’ claims against Oberlin College and Dean Raimondo will move forward in court on May 1,” Wargo wrote in an email to the Review. “We are disappointed. Every effort to resolve this matter has been to no avail. We believe the evidence is clear. Neither Oberlin College nor Dr. Raimondo defamed a local business [nor] its owners. Colleges cannot be held liable for the independent actions of students. Employers are not legally responsible for employees who express personal views on personal time. The law is clear on these issues.”

“The College values its long relationship with the town of Oberlin and its businesses,” Wargo said. “We will continue our commitment to the economic uplift of the local businesses that make this community, county, and region a destination of choice. The claims in this case conflict with the obligations of higher education to protect freedom of speech on college campuses. The College respects the rights of all individuals to express their personal opinions and to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights.”

Only the most recent Oberlin College president, Carmen Twillie Ambar, hinted at perhaps some present problems that are lingering a bit too long. Appointed to the post last May as the 15th school president, Ambar will be likely testifying at the trial this week.

Today, at the school’s Finney Chapel, she gave the annual “Presidential Address” to students, faculty, and alums who are in town for the commencement for the Oberlin College Class of 2019. She gave the usual plea for money from the alums, praised the great research from the professors, said students were getting better than ever, and even pointed out that Oberlin College had won its first national college sports championship this year in its 185-year history (it was in “Ultimate Frisbee”).

But she did say one sentence that has some relevance to what Oberlin College is facing in Lorain County Common Pleas court about ten miles east of the campus.

“We are charged with protecting Oberlin’s future from its present,” the Oberlin College president told the crowd in the chapel. Ambar didn’t mention the lawsuit or in dollar amounts how much the Gibson’s lawsuit in the present might cost the future.

It seems to me the alumni might benefit from reading our trial coverage. They certainly will read all about it if the college loses and gets hit with the seven- or eight-figure sum the plaintiffs are demanding:

The plaintiffs rested last week and the defense will likely begin calling witnesses on Tuesday. On behalf of Legal Insurrection, have a great Memorial Day.

[Featured Image: Oberlin College commencement seating, photo credit: Daniel McGraw for Legal Insurrection Foundation]

Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1


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