Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College Closing Argument: “When a powerful institution says you are racist, you are doomed”
Defense counsel counters: “none of these allegations you are considering have anything to do with what the college did or did not do.”
Today were closing arguments by the lawyers in Gibson Bros. v. Oberlin College, the lawsuit said to represent “the worst of identity politics.” You can read about some of the background on this case here.
When Lee Plakas, the lead attorney representing Gibson’s Bakery, Allyn W. Gibson, and David Gibson, in their lawsuit against Oberlin College and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, started his closing argument this morning, he put a letter on the screen for the jury to see. It was entitled, “If Only Oberlin College Had Chosen to Do This.”
This is what the jury and the rest of the crowded courtroom read:
Dear Oberlin College Community,
Many of you are aware of an incident involving three Oberlin College students at Gibson’s Bakery on November 9, 2016. These three students have been charged with robbery, simple assault and attempted petty theft-shoplifting. Their cases are now being prosecuted in the criminal justice system.
We would like to reaffirm that Oberlin College respects the rule of law and believes that no individuals should expect, nor receive, special treatment, regardless of their affiliation with any institution, their gender, their skin color, or any other grouping.
Oberlin College has enjoyed a very long term relationship with Gibson’s Bakery and the Gibson family and we have no indication or record of any complaints or history of racism or racial profiling by the Gibsons.
Therefore, we urge all of you to not rush to judgment and say or do things that can harm others before all the facts are established.
Marvin Krislov, Oberlin College President
Meredith Raimondo, V.P. & Dean of Students
Right after Plakas read this out loud to the courtroom, there was a loud thunder clap as a rainstorm rolled through downtown Elyria, Ohio. And Plakas paused for a second as the rain pelted on the 7th floor courtroom windows, and emphasized why this letter he wished Oberlin College had put out in early November of 2016 was extremely important for the jury’s deliberations in this case.
“If it wasn’t for the arrogance of this powerful institution we wouldn’t be here,” Plakas said. “We must care when powerful institutions don’t care enough. You can tell them loud and clear that their behavior has to change.”
Two Different Narratives
The closing arguments by both sides of this case were completed this morning, though the case has not been turned over to the jury just yet. Judge John R. Miraldi held a hearing in his chambers for both sides after lunch, as there was some disagreement as to what his jury instructions – originally slated for the afternoon – would be. Miraldi then sent the jury home and told them they would get final jury instructions from him on Thursday morning. They will deliberate after that.
What each side had to offer the jury was as different as night and day. Gibson’s main theme was that Oberlin College had been having problems with its minority and more radical “cultural appropriation-problem” students, and that they decided to unload on Gibson’s by supporting the racial accusations from protestors.
As Plakas said, “Oberlin College had a choice at one point to appease their base of students and they could either deal with the issue or pass it off on someone else. They chose the latter, and in so doing, sacrificed Gibson’s in the process.”
The lead attorney for Oberlin College, Richard Panza, told the jury the school had no role in any of the protests or the aftermath. It was just students protesting, the rights of free speech, and that “none of these allegations you are considering have anything to do with what the college did or did not do.”
“Something happened that night [of the shoplifting] which ignited the students,” Panza said. “Whatever it was, it was the catalyst that inspired the entire affair. It was student-led and the school had nothing to do with it.”
“The college didn’t organize it. They wanted no part of it. But they were charged with keeping the community safe. To try to talk to the students out of protesting was unrealistic. Once it got going on the fast track down the rails, Meredith Raimondo made sure there were no one was one those tracks to be injured.”
The issue the jury will have to consider is the two pieces of evidence – a flyer passed out at the protest, and an Oberlin College Student Senate resolution – both of which contained sentencing which accused the business of being racist.
The college claimed in their closing argument that these were student publications, and the school had nothing to do with them and therefore was not part of those messages sent out.” There was testimony during the trial that Raimondo handed out at least one of the flyers and that the college facilitated the posting of the student resolution on campus.
“Publication is what you and your 200 buddies do when you copy flyers and pass them out,” Panza said. “The student senate emailed their resolution to 2800 student and that is publication. But those publications are irrelevant in this case, because the school had nothing to do with them.”
Plakas jumped on this subject, saying “The Gibson’s do not want sympathy, they only want justice.”
“Oberlin College wants it both ways,” he continued. “They say we’re in charge and we have influence, but if anything happens, blame the students. Gibson’s was doing everything right, and in an instant, it was taken from them by a large institution like this college. But [Oberlin College] say they had nothing to do with it, but in actuality, they had the power and responsibility to solve these problems and chose not to.”
“When they had the ability to do the right thing, to be the adult in the room, what did they do?”
The jury interpretation on the issues at play here are key, and the jury instructions by the judge tomorrow will be crucial as to how they interpret things. Oberlin College is saying they let the students protest because of free speech, and that anything that happened negatively toward Gibson was a First Amendment issue. And that nothing that happened after the protests – cutting off Gibson’s as a school vendor, emails from school administrators showing some malice toward the business, or damage from the racist branding of Gibson’s post-protest – could be part of this case.
The attorneys for Gibson’s were saying quite the opposite. The school did not initially “publish” the material in question, but did help students distribute the defamatory material in various ways at and after the protest: punishing the business for not dropping the shoplifting charges against the three who plead guilty eventually, helping the students find “quiet space” during the protests and feeding them and buying them mittens, caving in to students who threatened to “stomp” on Gibson’s bakery items if they were still served in the cafeteria, and never putting out any statement that Gibson’s is not racist.
Plakas compared Oberlin College’s actions to a person standing next to another person shooting a rifle which is killing people, and not stepping in at some point to stop them. And giving them bullets instead. He said they “aided and abetted defamation, the same as one would in a crime.”
In the end though, it also will come down to how the jury assesses damaged in monetary terms. Oberlin College still contends the business isn’t worth much of anything, and goes by their economic expert’s opinion – he was paid about $65,000 by the school – that the 135-year-old business is worth only $35,000.
Plakas put the compensatory and non-economic damages combined for David Gibson, his 90-year-old father Allyn W. Gibson, and the business at $12.8 million. The jury can also add punitive damages if they find Oberlin College guilty of the libel and defamation.
Plakas closed with a pair of social media send-outs that he thinks the jury should see as indicative of the school being in charge of the entire affair. In August of 2017, when the three shoplifters plead guilty and were put on probation, Toni Myers, Oberlin College’s Multicultural Resource Center Director then, send out a text which said, “After a year, I hope we rain fire and brimstone on that store.”
That year length in question, Plakas said, was the time it would take for the three shoplifters to finish probation and have their criminal record expunged.
He also told the jury that the definition of the “fire and brimstone” that Oberlin College administrators were sharing was two definitions in biblical terms: “torment suffered by sinners in hell” and “punishment that lasts forever.”
His second email mentioned in closing was when Meredith Raimondo sent out one about a college professor’s letter to the editor to the school newspaper on the protests. Roger Copeland, an Oberlin College professor of theater and dance (he is “emeritus” status now) criticized how the school was treating Gibson’s soon after the protests ended.
“Fuck him,” Raimondo sent out in an email to the school’s communication’s director. “I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us.”
Plakas used this now-famed email again. “They can’t say they have no control over their students, how they have free speech and are independent, but they can leash their students on unleash them whenever they want?” he asked the jury.
“When a powerful institution says you are racist, you are doomed.”
Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1
[Featured image photo credit: Daniel McGraw for Legal Insurrection Foundation]
WAJ Adds: We will be on Verdict Watch tomorrow, and Friday if necessary. As soon as there is a verdict, Dan will contact me and I will post it. You will be the first to know, other than people in the courtroom.
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