Oberlin College has taken a public relations beating in the wake of the massive verdicts against it and its Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo in the Gibson’s Bakery case. The verdicts totaled $44 million, but those will be reduced under Ohio’s tort reform law — how much they are reduced will be the subject of court litigation, but there will be a substantial reduction (perhaps more than half) in all likelihood.

The stories are too numerous to list, but there has been widespread criticism of Oberlin College’s conduct.

What Oberlin College wants to do is now (in addition to winning an appeal) is not to become the next Mizzou or Evergreen State, where unsavory social justice warfare by faculty and staff, egging on students, cause enrollments to collapse. Oberlin College, already suffering from weak enrollment numbers, faces that real possibility.

Oberlin College has been trying to reframe the issue as one of student free speech, but we previously examined why that was not the issue. The jury held Oberlin College responsible for its own actions, through senior administrators, not vicariously liable for students:

Oberlin College and Raimondo were not “held liable for the independent actions of their students.” Rather, the defendants were held liable for their own conduct in aiding and abetting the publication of libelous documents, interference with business, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Let me repeat, it was the college’s and Raimondo’s own conduct that was at issue before the jury.

Now Oberlin College is rolling out a more formal public relations campaign, launched today in a blast email by its President, Carmen Twillie Ambar. The email and FAQs continue the claim that the college was held responsible for the conduct and speech of students, dispute Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo’s role, and dispute other testimony offered by the Gibsons as to Oberlin College’s request that the bakery call the college, not police, for student shoplifting. (Remember, student shoplifting was part of what a student journalist called Oberlin’s “Culture of Theft”)

Here is the full email (emphasis added):

Dear Members of the Oberlin Community,

As the public discourse around the lawsuit from Gibson’s Bakery continues, many of you may have questions. It is important, as we engage in these discussions both internally and externally, that we have a shared set of facts. Oberlin has been scrupulous over the last two and a half years in its efforts to honor the legal process. As part of that deference, we have avoided any public comments that could be seen as an attempt to prejudice the legal process or litigate our case through the media.

Now that a jury has rendered its verdict and the legal process has entered a new stage, it is both more appropriate and important that we be as transparent as we can about the events at the heart of this lawsuit, the suit itself, the path that lies ahead, and the values at stake—for Oberlin and for higher education more broadly. In that spirit, we would like to offer a Frequently Asked Questions document that begins to address some of your concerns and brings to the fore the facts. I would encourage you to read them thoroughly.

We will have much more to say as this process moves forward, and we will continue to listen closely to your questions, addressing them as best we can. More information will follow as we provide you with an opportunity in the coming days to ask questions in real time through our Phonecast technology.

While the below link to the FAQs gives you more details, cutting through the noise, this matter is about an incident that occurred at Gibson’s Bakery which resulted in students choosing to protest. The students may have been right or they may have been wrong about the details surrounding the incident, but demonstrating is their constitutional right. As always, the College insisted that the demonstrations be supervised, to protect all sides and the entire community from violence and property damage. While we deeply value the jury’s work, we do not believe that case law supports the jury’s determination that Oberlin should be held liable for the speech and actions of its students. To do so is to erode a fundamental constitutional right.

Despite this belief, we also know that there are lessons to be learned from this verdict and areas where the College can improve. This lawsuit has been hard on Oberlin College and Conservatory, the Gibsons, our students, faculty, and staff, our town, and all who care about us. We will take this moment in our history to absorb the valuable lessons it imparts. We also recognize that we have a great deal of work to do to heal these scars and build trust throughout our extended community. We approach that imperative with humility. We approach it, too, with optimism that we will emerge from this episode stronger—stronger as an institution, stronger in our relationship with our neighbors, and stronger in our service to the region, the nation, and the world.

Sincerely,

Carmen Twillie Ambar
President

The Frequently Asked Questions are contentious, and provide Raimondo’s side of the story as to her participation in the protest. The jury heard Raimondo’s side of the story. The jury also heard contrary evidence from other witnesses that Raimondo was an active participant in orchestrating the protest and distributing the defamatory flyers, and it’s pretty obvious who the jury believed. The FAQs attempt to reargue the case, and provide, in part:

Did Dean Raimondo pass out protest fliers created by the student protesters? Did she use a bullhorn?

No. Jason Hawk, editor of the Oberlin News Tribune, said in his testimony at the Gibson’s trial that he approached the Dean of Students and asked what was happening. The Dean asked a student to provide her with a flyer and she handed it to him. Mr. Hawk testified that the Dean provided him with the flyer to accommodate his request and that he did not see her handing out flyers.

Yes. The Dean spoke for only two minutes using a bullhorn. In these two minutes she identified herself to all present and explained her presence and role at the protest.

Why didn’t administrators prevent students from protesting?

It would violate College policy to attempt to prevent students from exercising their right to free speech and their right of assembly under the First Amendment. The Court ruled that the protests were a constitutionally protected exercise of the right to expression and assembly that cannot be the basis of any civil liability.

Did senior administrators participate in the protest, as some media outlets are claiming?

No. No member of the College’s senior leadership participated in the protest. There was some testimony at the trial that a handful of faculty and staff were present at the protest. Any Oberlin faculty or staff at the protest participated in their personal capacity and not as a representative of Oberlin.

* * *

Did the College defame or libel the Gibsons?

No. The College did not create, endorse or condone the student senate resolution or the protest flyer that were the subject of this lawsuit.

* * *

Did Oberlin College officials ever ask the Gibsons or other local merchants to turn students
accused of shoplifting over to College staff members rather than the police?

No. Oberlin College officials never made such a request.

* * *

Did some senior administrators and faculty use unprofessional language in a few emails and personal text messages some months following the protest?

Yes. Some senior administrators and faculty did use unprofessional language in a few text messages and emails well after the protest. Appropriate disciplinary action was taken in response to this behavior.

Why did the College refuse to issue the apology that the Gibsons requested, stating they were not racist?

The College worked with the Gibsons to issue a joint statement, but the Gibsons refused this offer. The College has never at any time suggested that the Gibsons were racist. An apology from the College would have been misleading, implying that the College had taken a position it never had. The appropriate role for the College was to help rebuild trust between the students and the community, and it made efforts to do so, both publicly and behind the scenes. These efforts included a series of meetings with the Gibsons, President Marvin Krislov, and various staff.

* * *

Why did the trial end up with such a large verdict against Oberlin?

The jury has spoken, and we have listened. While we respect the jury’s service and we believe there are things to learn from the verdict, we do not believe that the jury applied past legal precedent with respect to the legal claims in this case. All of those factors will be part of our consideration as we determine the best path forward, and part of any next steps in the legal process.

* * *

Will the damages awarded by the jury be paid by donations?

The College mitigates against these types of risk. We cannot predict the exact path the legal process will follow; the important thing is that Oberlin will do everything in its power to ensure that any costs it incurs will not put an additional burden on students or donors.

It’s interesting that the tone and substance of the presidential blast email closely mirrors the position taken by the student editors of The Oberlin Review just yesterday, portraying Oberlin College and its students as the victims, Media Coverage of Gibson’s Verdict Misses the Mark:

The core question of the trial was whether Oberlin College and its dean of students are on the hook for statements made by their students. The chilling answer from the jury was a resounding yes. That decision should broadly concern everybody who believes in freedom of speech and student autonomy.

Throughout the trial, the Gibsons maintained that the College should have stepped in on the bakery’s behalf; the College’s argument was that administrators could only try to maintain the safety of all parties involved, and that any attempt to dictate student speech would be blatantly outside the scope of responsible leadership.

The jury sided with the Gibsons — a decision with profoundly disturbing implications for free speech at Oberlin and on college campuses across an increasingly authoritarian country. Conservative commentators often talk about a supposed crisis of free speech on campuses, wherein students wield the sword of political correctness to silence dissenting opinions. To the contrary, this verdict is a real warning shot against free speech. The fact that those same commentators have widely lauded the verdict reveals their hypocrisy and lays their thinly-veiled agenda bare.

Michelle Malkin notes that the college still doesn’t get it, I’m an Oberlin Graduate. They Had It Coming.

As a right-wing alumna of far-left Oberlin College, I have four words for the administration in response to last week’s ground-breaking $11 million jury verdict in the defaming of humble Gibson’s Bakery:

You had it coming.

I have five more words for Oberlin as arrogant college officials continue their obstinate war on the Gibson family even after the much-deserved courtroom defeat:

You still don’t get it.

Expect a more intensified public relations campaign in coming weeks and months trying to portray the people the jury found to be the victims to be the perpetrators, and the people the jury found to be the perpetrators to be the victims.

 
 
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