Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College trial — Judge keeps out politics, but Town v. Gown frames the case
Democrat v. Republican, or vice versa, isn’t at play in the evidence heard in the courtroom, though politics may have sparked the campus reaction to the shoplifting arrests the day after Trump’s victory.
Closing arguments in Gibson Bros. v. Oberlin College are scheduled for this Wednesday, then the jury gets the case. It’s possible we will have a verdict this week. 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.
Since I first started sitting in the courtroom for the case more than a month ago, I’ve had to explain to media friends and family what I’m up to. The reason they don’t know is that most of the media — both liberal and conservative — have avoided this case, and we’ll save the explanation as to why that is (and not what most of you think it is) for another day.
But once I explain the civil lawsuit to my acquaintances, their first reaction is that this case must be full of political fireworks. You know that drill. The old guy MAGA hats against the millennial lib snowflakes. The red pills and the blue pills. Lots of political ideology either for against liberal art education on 4chan and reddit. More opinions, less substance.
The commenters on this site get into that mindset at times. But this case is not very political at all, on the surface. Let me explain why.
The judge in this case, John R. Miraldi, has kept his foot on the political snake’s legal head from the beginning. Though some like to jump into the complexity of a case like this, it is actually very simple. Students were protesting against Gibson’s and said they were racist but there was no documented history of racism. That claim was false and damaging, according to the plaintiffs.
The business is suing Oberlin College and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo because they say the school and the Dean assisted the students in putting out that false message. In the end, it is not their political ideology for putting out the false claim (or not) that is at stake here, it is whether they did it or not. Political affiliation really has nothing to do with it, in legal terms.
Judge Miraldi has kept most evidence that has political ramifications out, and the attorneys for both sides have as well. Three quick examples:
• Oberlin College had multiple students they planned on calling but used none of them. Reason? The students would have likely kept insisting from the witness stand that Gibson’s is racist (I know that from my conversations on campus with students that is still how most feel), but the judge would not have allowed that. So, what would the students have had to say? It is obvious that the Oberlin College attorneys figured students testifying would have dug the hole deeper for the college by bringing up their beliefs on racial politics and how they relate to selling cookies and beer, and shoplifters getting arrested.
• Oberlin College got a whiff of that denial of opinion from the witness stand when Chris Jenkins, an associate dean for academic support and equity testified last week. He was on the stand to testify on his role in possibly helping students to copy a flyer that said Gibson’s was racist (he said he didn’t), but then started in a cultural diatribe of sorts. He said he counseled students on “allegations of discrimination and harassment” against them, and then jumped in with, “I personally have had moments in the [Gibson’s] store where I didn’t feel comfortable … “ At that the judge cut him off and told the jury to disregard. Jenkins was soon off the stand after that.
• The jury never heard from Allyn D. Gibson, the mid-30s son of owner David Gibson, and the one who was at the cash register and in the tussle outside when the shoplifting occurred on Nov. 9, 2016. He didn’t appear because of several issues. Oberlin College had wanted him to testify because they had supposedly unearthed some comments he made on Facebook around 2012 that had allegedly some racial overtones to them. Judge Miraldi would not allow that evidence to be included in the case (not related to the case at hand), and the plaintiffs’ attorneys figured they didn’t need him for testimony. Thus, he sat on the sidelines in all this (not much to add, and little risk).
These may seem like non-political examples. But the reason I included them is to show that the judge did not want to open the door even a smidgen to allow this case to get off on a political track. He did not want to students or administrators to use the witness stand to debate if Gibson’s was racist or not. He did not want the school to bring up an expert who might testify that that reason the students were up in arms over racism because of the political climate of November of 2016, and therefore that was the excuse for protesting.
Or allowing the plaintiffs to introduce evidence or testimony that political ideology wasn’t the excuse for, but the cause of, the protests and racial accusations.
In short, Judge Miraldi is keeping this case as simple as he can. Namely, did Oberlin College support and help students defame a business in a way that was against the law? And if so, how much do they owe the business and the individuals allegedly defamed?
That is not to say that the political ramifications of that time and place were not a big part of why this happened and when it did. Since I first heard of this protest in Oberlin on Nov. 10-11 of 2016, my first thought was that it occurred a few days after the Trump-Clinton election. I am convinced that if the shoplifting had occurred three months earlier or three months later, there would have been little or no protest over three African-Americans shoplifting at Gibson’s.
There is no question, however, that the school was ripe for venting anger over racial issues and Trump’s win that the student body was upset with. But the only evidence in this case that has a political bent in that direction was the letter sent out the Oberlin College community on Nov. 11 by school President Marvin Krislov and Raimondo.
This is the opening paragraph that acknowledges that the student body is pissed over the election of Donald Trump:
“This has been a difficult few days for our community, not simply because of the events at Gibson’s Bakery, but because of the fears and concerns that many are feeling in response to the outcome of the presidential election. We write foremost to acknowledge the pain and sadness that many of you are experiencing. We want you to know that the administration, faculty, and staff are here to support you as we work through this moment together.”
There is much more evidence the jury won’t see that the student body was politically pissed and why the protest might have been conjoined to the election. This is from a Nov. 11 story in the student newspaper, The Oberlin Review, titled “Election Day Rattles Oberlin as Trump Prevails.”
“Part of the inconceivable quality of the election is, I don’t know a Trump voter personally, and I can’t imagine someone voting for Trump,” College senior Ariel Miller said. “I’ve tried to think about the issue of uniting our country, like Donald Trump said in his speech last night. But I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to reach across that line. I don’t even know who they are.”
This quote came from the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram from their Nov. 10 story, “Oberlin residents, students reeling from election results”:
“I know the anger is going to come eventually, but now I’m too numb to feel anything,” senior Jack Goldberg said. He attributed Trump’s success to sexism. “She should have been president, and America denied her of this because she is a woman and the fact that all of my friends of color are scared for their lives and their safety right now, I don’t even know how to process it, really.”
And this was an op-ed from The Oberlin Review a year later on Nov. 10, 2017, claiming the Gibson’s had a “prideful moral superiority over the College.”
“In reading the legal documents filed by the Gibson family, it is clear that their intention is to provoke an explosive, emotional response from students. Many of the claims they make are against a nameless person or group of people, and are meant to be generally incendiary rather than substantive. The documents also have racist undertones that further expose the core reasons for the lawsuit. The Gibsons’ have no interest in finding any resolution to this conflict — instead, they seek to assert their prideful moral superiority over the College, which they view as biased and discriminatory.”
You can now see why the lawyers for Oberlin College kept the students off the stand. Because if they did as the judge instructed, and kept their testimony to whether the college helped to defame the business or not, they might have had nothing to say.
What this case has more to do with, and I have concluded this after hearing weeks of testimony, is that the town and gowns issue is more prevalent here, and that transcends some of the Republican V. Democrats explanatory thoughts on this case from outside the courtroom and outside Oberlin itself. What Oberlin College seemed to be doing was satisfying the gown by acting badly to the town. Politics no doubt added to the problem, but the basis for Gibson’s claim is more about a small business being bullied by the big business in town. That big business, ironically, was the liberal arts college.
A big question, though, is whether the closing arguments by both sides will included some political rejoinders that may sway a juror or two toward their side.
Once again, not likely that the attorneys run down that road in this case. Lorain County is a mixed bag politically, having voted for all the statewide Republicans in 2014, and all the Democrats in 2018. Former President Barack Obama won the county easily in 2008 and 2012 with about 58% of the vote in both elections.
But the main reason the attorneys probably won’t bring up too much cultural-based political themes in their closings is what happened in Lorain County in the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton got 66,949 votes (47.34%), while Donald Trump got 66,818 (47.24%). Start blaming one political side or the other for this libel case, and you will most likely piss off half of the jury.
Closing arguments are set to begin Wednesday. The eight-member jury will get the case for deliberation after that. Only six need agree on a verdict.
[Featured Image: Oberlin Review]
Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1
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