Plaintiff’s attorney showed student texts that “the war in our community has already started,” the college’s attorney says school officials were just trying to “de-escalate the crisis.”
In ways that are both irritating and interesting, the opening statements by the attorneys in Gibson Bros. v. Oberlin College shows how jurors may have a hard time defining the event in question accurately.
The question is whether a fairly elite, liberal arts college (Oberlin College) defamed and libeled a small family run business (Gibson’s Bakery & Market) with racial overtones. All this in a time when the different political and cultural tribes were picking sides on just about everything, the day after Donald Trump’s election.
But listen to what the lead attorneys told the jury today in Elyria, Ohio.
“When Oberlin College had the opportunity to calm things down, the administrators as a group, chose to fan the flames,” said Lee Plakas, attorney for Gibson’s and the individual plaintiffs.
Here is what attorney Ronald Holman II, the lead attorney for Oberlin College, the defendant, said to the jury: “[Dean of Students] Meredith Raimondo and Oberlin College were that calming influence … They were there to lower the temperature between students, businesses, onlookers and others. They kept the peace.”
For those who study civil tort law, or for anyone who has been in arguments with friends or family members, perception becomes the key. In recent years, it has become not what is the truth, but what side people are on. How this plays out in the courtroom is very new, and in this case, how the social media played into things will be front and center for the next three weeks.
It was quite clear today, however, what each side was going to put forward into evidence to break any advocacy logjam.
In the opening statement, Plakas emphasized how Gibson’s was caught in the middle of racial histrionics that the Oberlin College found itself in. Instead of tamping down on a student protest that seemed to have little factual relevance at its purpose, Plakas showed the jury messages sent by the protests organizers that “The war in our community has already started” and “It’s time to get in formation, for real.”
This “war in the community” was over students getting arrested for stealing wine.
Holman said the school’s involvement was nothing more than the usual protocol they followed: that Raimondo was involved, yes, but not so much to decide if the protest was righteous or not. “The Dean of Students will serve as the responsible official and spokesperson at the scene for the college,” the “Student Regulations, Policies, and Procedures” document says, which Holman said was the rules the school has always followed.
Witnesses and evidence will be presented starting tomorrow (Friday), and the case looks like it could be a classic example of antiquated school policy and a culturally dismayed student body colliding into each other and common sense being the victim. And that irony seems to be the focus of the messages. The plaintiffs are pointing out to the jury over and over again how students just don’t arrive at their own crazy behavior without a little help from the school they attend and live at.
Oberlin College’s attorneys, on the contrary, are pointing out that they are not at fault in any way: they followed their own rules, made sure the protest was safe, and if this private business suffered from student antipathy, the school had little to do with that.
This all started on Nov 9, 2016 when three Oberlin African-American students were arrested for their roles in attempting to shoplift three bottles of wine form the store. That precipitated that the “war in our community has already started” chanting and Gibson’s found over time their business and reputation had been harmed significantly because of racist accusations, according to their complaint. Some background on this case can be found here.
But it is apparent that the jury will have to get used to the oddity of life and times in a little college town. Gibson’s had been a business in the community since 1885, and has done business with the college since the 1910s. Those business duties (besides what they sell in their very tiny downtown store) include providing some edibles for the campus cafeteria, and doing party trays and morning pastries for meeting at the college. They also were chosen by the school to be able to accept the student money cards that were overseen by the school (called Obie cards).
The school ended using the store as a food provider in various ways after the protests started. Once the lawsuit was filed in November of 2017, the school cut them off completely.
It is extremely odd that a school like Oberlin College would suddenly symbolically come to blows with a business they had been dealing with for more than 100 years. “Gibson’s survived Word War I in working with the school, they survived the Great Depression, World War II, and more recently the Great Recession, but now [a shoplifting case] made the school make a decision to interrupt that longstanding relationship,” Plakas told the jury
“And at no time,” Plakas continued, “did the school have any complaints about the food or the service Gibson’s provided. This wouldn’t have happened if Oberlin had acted like the adult in the room, instead of being childish and playing up to their students.”
One can see how this college school “town and gown” nuttiness comes into play in some of the emails issued out by school administrators after the protest.
Just days after the student protest started, administrators were already starting to discuss in emails about the possibility of cutting Gibson’s off from being a food contractors for the school. Some for the emails stated the business cancellations might be a “tool for leverage” and a “great bargaining chip” in dealing with Gibson’s. The school wanted Gibson’s to go to the Oberlin police and courts and have the shoplifting charges dropped, according to the plaintiffs.
The first emails said the school should discuss getting rid of Gibson’s for providing “Donuts, cookies, and even pizza dough” for the school.
An administrator responsible for campus food service sent back an email and asked, “You really want no pizza?”
One of the school’s communication officers sent a response saying, “Transfer to [local grocery store] … Better donuts, anyway … Fuck ‘em.”
The special assistant for the Oberlin College president shot back, “100%!!!!!!!” and “don’t change a damn thing for me.”
While all this may seem very silly (and a lot of it is), it does show the vast difference between life in the real free market world and life in the sometimes fantasy land of academia. It became quite apparent that a fifth-generation family business didn’t seem to be that important to the school, and had little idea that a long-time school business partner that helped provide pizza for their students, used that money from their work to do things like pay mortgages and buy food and raise children and grand-children.
To that end, Plakas repeatedly told the jurors this was a “David and Goliath” case, with the school being the Philistine giant and Gibson’s as the little guy with the stone in the sling. Defense counsel Holman took the opposite view, and told the jurors repeatedly that Raimondo and the school were merely following their protocol to “de-escalate the crisis.”
As for the jury, this being a civil case in Ohio, the jury is eight regular jurors and two alternates (who are not told of their alternate status until after the case is finished and goes to the jury). Of the ten, six are women, and four are men. It seems about half-and-half as far as age goes; five look to be under 40, five above that age.
As far as race goes, the jury seems to be mostly white, though it is difficult to tell by sight exactly how many may have part-minority ancestry. As to pre-emptory challenges by both sides, the court does not release which side knocked off which juror, and the attorneys would not say either. Only two seemed to have any political leanings that might have mattered to either side: one was a Teamster union official who helped plan political rallies for the union; the other was a woman who answered questions very independently and offered up she had a attended an anti-Trump rally in Washington DC right after his election.
But all in all, this jury seems very representative of Lorain County, Ohio. Very ordinary and middle-class, about half with a college degree or higher, and no one standing out as one who wants to get too independent on this jury. In other words, this group is a pretty fair representation of Midwest suburban America: mostly white, middle-class, and those who understand the concept of “fairness.”
Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1
[Featured Image: Plaintiff David Gibson immediately after the shoplifting incident that sparked protests and eventually this lawsuit, via Police body cam video.]
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