Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College weekend wrap-up: Get in bed with Social Justice Warriors, wake up with a lawsuit
Based on trial motions, it is clear that what will be argued to the jury in this case is that the school catered to and dictated a message their radical student base wanted them to do
We have concluded the first several days of trial motions, with more to go, and are awaiting jury selection starting Wednesday.
You can read my reporting on the trial motions here:
- Previewing Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College trial: ‘Social Justice’ free speech or defamation?
- Judge finds Gibson’s “reputation is central to this case”
- Bakery to prove “the college poured gasoline on the fire”
- What’s a reputation worth, and how do you prove it?
In this post I’ll try to make sense of how things got to this point.
In this day and time of constant opinion in social media, and the edges of the extreme are favored over middle-ground common sense, the worst thing to be these days is one who sits on the sideline and doesn’t make accusations rather than the one who is actually being accused of some ideological and/or political impropriety.
Take any issue you want; Gun control, immigration reform, healthcare, freedom of speech, etc. On immigration, if you are part of a group that advocates for the rights of refugees trying to enter the country, your followers expect your group to yell and scream about any opposing group looking to restrict immigrant numbers in general. Likewise, if you want to slam the door on all immigrants, you are judged not by the veracity of your opinions, but how loud you yell them at the one who want more immigrants.
It’s not about right or wrong or intellectual discussion. It is who yells the loudest and the longest.
Oberlin College finds itself in this unnerving spot in the civil trial where it is being accused of libel and defamation by participating with extremists who were claiming a small, local business in Oberlin was racist.
Jury selection will likely begin this Wednesday, and as the trial begins, expect the plaintiff’s attorneys to harp repeatedly on the fact that Oberlin basically jumped into this foray because not joining in on the racist accusations was actually worse in the eyes of its students than joining in on a protest with little factual basis to it.
It is a problem many of these small, liberal arts institutions are finding themselves in these day. The school’s Black Student Union called out the Oberlin College administration for being racist with a 14-page letter a year before this protest action happened. This is their accusation against their school: “You include Black and other students of color in the institution and mark them with the words ‘equity, inclusion and diversity, when in fact this institution functions on the premises of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and a cissexist heteropatriarchy.”
The school did not sit down and negotiate over these “imperialism” and “white supremacy” accusations. But a year later, it found itself in a position to join in with its students in accusing a small business of such similar malfeasance that the students had called them out on. As the plaintiff’s lawyers will likely point out, Oberlin jumped from being the accused to being the accuser. In this day and age, that is a more comfortable place to be.
These are the basic facts of the case. On Nov. 9, 2016, a day after the presidential elections, three Oberlin College students were arrested for shoplifting and scuffling with an employee of Gibson’s Bakery and Market, a convenience store business that had been operating there since 1885. A protest by students ensued after that, with the protesters chanting Gibson’s is “racist” for going after the shoplifters.
Gibson’s is claiming the school libeled and defamed their reputation and money earning in the community by joining the protest actively and handing out flyers saying the business was racist. We covered a lot of this in more detail in a case preview on April 29.
What has happened at Oberlin College is that the positive perception of “diversity” on campus has morphed into the unlikable impression of “tokenism.” That being, that Oberlin College, once known as one of the top small schools in the country and once nicknamed the “Harvard of the Midwest,” is thought of by many minority students now as being part of moving them to the liberal, upper middle-class, dominated by whites, which they consider part of the higher-education, societal con job.
If you are somewhat confused by all this, join the club. Over the weekend in Oberlin, I was told by a group of students at the Slow Train Café coffee shop that as an older white male, I had been “desensitized” in my lifetime, didn’t understand them at all, and had all the bad parts of “cisgenderism.”
Also, none of them wanted their names used as I was one of those lying, fake news, media people that they were experts on as well.
How this fits into the case is that the attorneys for Gibson’s will be arguing that Oberlin College was, and still is, ideologically confused and that this one of the primary reasons for their actions against Gibson’s. If students are accusing the school of “appropriating” their lives, these same students are now wearing the badge of “victimhood.” Payback can come in many formats.
If all this sounds confusing, it is. But it is part of a long transformation since the 1970s of what these small, liberal arts colleges have actually become. These changes did not occur in a tidy two-year window as the media often likes to frame things. This was a change in perception of both collegiate purpose and factual overview that happened over decades.
In short, Oberlin College isn’t what it once was, and it is trying to figure out what it is now. The joke in its early years and most of the 20th century was that it was “somewhere in the middle of nowhere.” It was about spending four years away from mainstream America, then returning with a well-seasoned and newly minted brain. That’s why you drove for hours through the corn fields to get there.
And it was special. In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at its commencement (one of many times he did, the first being in 1957), and Oberlin College’s involvement in and commitment to the Civil Rights movement was clear to King. He challenged the graduates to remain committed to justice as Oberlin “has probably done more than any other [college] to support the struggle for racial justice.”
MLK added, “I can never come to this campus without a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude for all that this great institution has done for the cultural, political, and social life of our nation. By all standards, Oberlin is one of the great colleges, not only of our nation, but of the world.”
That world greatness had faded. It is no longer in the middle of nowhere, either. Highways put it now only about 25 minutes away from the Cleveland airport, and Ohio State University in only 100 miles south – less than a two-hour drive away. But more importantly, the online world brings mainstream America into everyone’s phone. In America, the middle of nowhere no longer exists.
The result of these changes is that the individual student is now more important than the school itself. Artistic expression is not now done, it has to be approved. Controversial books have to have a “trigger” warning. And the new dirty word of accusation and social stratification is “intersectionality.”
In the end, most everything must now be “school-approved,” and run through the “diversity checklist” for that approval. That’s where the designation of white male is not a good square to have checked.
What is driving this civil lawsuit in courtroom planning is all that and a lot more. Higher education is now fighting through this ultimate meaning and purpose of knowledge-based thinking change; part of which is now based on the acceptable supposition that the college now conforms to the individual rather than the individual conforming to the college. It is no longer about the equality of opportunity that is made available, it is about the equality of post-graduation outcomes that is measured.
Based on trial motions, it is clear that what will be argued to the jury in this case is that the school catered to and dictated a message their radical student base wanted them to do, not perhaps guiding them on what is a reasonable response and what is not. Not the old way of thinking that the college or university was sort of the high court of intellectualism — influenced by trends and eras, but not dominated by them.
What was influencing the thinking in the Lorain County courtroom last week is that the plaintiff attorneys are likely to wade into evidence that Gibson’s became collateral damage in a culture war that Oberlin College found itself involved in over what now defines liberal education. How to present that to a jury, though, is difficult. Because the big question is not whether collateral damage occurred, but how much it is worth.
What used to be the case in the university power structure, however, was that the school administration usually saw itself as the warden in the prison, and quietly made their young students/inmates get in line if the trends of the times pulled those students too far from common-sense land. That seems to exist less and less now, and a more conservative jury – which is likely to be the case in this northern Ohio county – will probably buy into that the school had abdicated their responsibility of leadership.
The married couple, Gary Kornblith and Carol Lasser, both Oberlin College history professors emeriti, wrote a book published last year called “Elusive Utopia: The Struggle for Racial Equality in Oberlin, Ohio.” One subject they brought up was how difficult historically it has been for the school to handle a controversial subject like racial equality. They pointed out that black families in Oberlin have an annual income one-fourth lower than that of white families, a poverty rate three times higher, and a lower percentage for townie college graduates compared to whites.
“While the history of race in Oberlin reminds us that well-meaning actions can have unintended consequences, amid today’s continuing struggle for the conscience and soul of America, we need the courage to envision a future of racial justice, an inclusive and productive multicultural politics, an economy of abundance widely shared, and a society of mutual respect, generosity and dignity,” they wrote.
“Dreams are dangerous, imperfect and powerful. They are also elusive, as are the utopias we imagine.”
Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1
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