Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College – Juror perceptions of reputation and social media emerge in questioning
Potential juror regarding social media: “Your name is now a brand, and our business and family are tied to that if it is harmed”
Given its complex nature, the jury selection for the Gibson Bros v. Oberlin College civil case trial will not be finished until Thursday, with the first witness not taking the stand until Friday.
The intricacies showed up on Wednesday when potential jurors were questioned on their views of the rights of criminal victims, freedom of speech, religious forgiveness of those who steal, and the nature of how does one react when one’s reputation is damaged by social media bullies.
If this sounds a bit extended for jurors whose main job will be to decide financial damages on private sector business wrongdoings, it is. But because the case blends in so many modern day interpretations of media, cultural affinity, and political leanings, this trial in Elyria, Ohio is breaking new legal ground in some regards.
The jurors were even asked today about the recent college enrollment acceptance scandal, where some wealthy parents have been accused of alleged crimes such as falsifying SAT scores, paying off university admissions officers and coaches, and lying about the athletic skills of their children to get them accepted into elite colleges. Several members of the jury in this case said they were “very aware,” and that the recent scandal made them “very angry.”
Oberlin College was not involved in those scandals, but it is considered elite in many ways. The 2019 undergraduate tuition, fees, and room and board for Oberlin College are $70,000 for their students, and there are a total of only less the 3,000 undergrads at the school. The school was founded in 1833, and has an endowment of close to $1 billion.
The reason that these higher education perceptions are important to the jury selection in this case, is that Oberlin College’s actions – and the perception of how the school acted — in and around Nov. 9, 2016 will play a big part in how the jury decides this case. What happened back then was an Oberlin College male student was caught shoplifting wine at Gibson’s Bakery and Market, and a scuffle with him and his two female student friends outside the store got the three arrested. This all happened the day after Donald Trump was elected president, and Oberlin College students seemed antsy for a little anger action that week.
A very large student protest did happen afterwards, claiming the Gibson’s – which has been operating since 1885 in Oberlin — was being racist in their actions of pursuing students who tried to steal from their store. Oberlin College allegedly joined in the protests in various ways, and that is where this civil defamation and libel case comes from. You can read about some of the background on this case here.
The court precluded the public from observing the morning jury questioning on Wednesday (the 70 jurors on hand made no room for anyone else), but after some jurors had been excused, we were permitted in the courtroom for the afternoon activity. It became quite clear the plaintiffs’ lawyers for Gibson’s were trying to seat independent thinking people who did not want to favor schools like Oberlin College.
For that reason, a potential juror who was in school to become an ordained minister was asked about both punishment and forgiveness, and how they intertwined (the future minister said both can, and should, be done). Jurors were also asked if they had ever been robbed and whether they thought it okay to pursue the person that robbed them (they all answered yes, if the robber wasn’t armed). They were also all asked how they would respond to being bullied online by social media haters (“Your name is now a brand, and our business and family are tied to that if it is harmed,” said one juror).
According to several sources, far more prospective jurors were excused because of admitted favoritism to Gibson’s (based on local media coverage of this case), than those who said they were more on the side of the college.
The only sticking point for the jurors, was deciding the monetary value decision if they found the defendants in this case, Oberlin College and its Dean of Students, had wrongly defamed Gibson’s. Some jurors thought that the higher the dollar amount they would have to approve would require a higher standard of proof of defamation. For example, some thought if the case was worth $50, it wouldn’t need as much defamation proof as a case that was worth $1 million.
That seems logical to many, but it goes against the legal precedent. The judge and lawyers made sure the prospective jurors understood that the two decisions (if defamation occurred, and how much it was worth), were unrelated to each other legally. In other words, the jury needs to find out if defamation occurs first, and if they do, then move on to the monetary punishment phase after that.
Only a few jurors were excused by challenges by the attorneys or the judge’s discretion, and the final choices for jury exclusion will happen tomorrow morning. One juror worked for a software company that had Oberlin College as a client (he was removed), while another woman’s daughter would be going to Oberlin College’s band camp this summer (she stayed). But it is too early to tell which side has any jury selection advantage at this point.
Ultimately, eight jurors and two alternates will be chosen. That is expected to be finished Thursday morning, with opening statements to occur by both sides that afternoon. The first witnessed are expected to be called Friday.
The case is expected to last until the end of the month.
Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1
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