In 2016, clerks at Gibson’s Bakery in Oberlin, Ohio, stopped several shoplifters from stealing from their store. They didn’t realize at the time that their action would set them on a six-year legal struggle.
Social justice warriors accused the tiny, family-owned bakery of racial profiling for confronting the shoplifters, who were black. That accusation prompted students and faculty at nearby Oberlin College to engage in a smear campaign to shut down Gibson’s Bakery.
Fortunately, a libel case filed by the bakery owners recently concluded with their victory. This didn’t stopped the college from continuing to accuse the shop of being racist.
“They have been completely unapologetic. They have been very aggressive towards this bakery,” says Bill Jacobson, a Cornell Law professor and founder of the Legal Insurrection Foundation. “They continue to make their false accusations of racism against the bakery. They show no remorse whatsoever.”
Jacobson and Legal Insurrection have covered this case since the beginning. He joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to provide background and discuss what the verdict means for other woke schools that wrongly target small businesses.
We also cover these stories:
- President Biden says the “MAGA crowd” is the “most extreme political organization that’s existed in recent American history.”
- Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., says he wants to stop tax breaks for companies that cover travel costs for employees who want to get an abortion.
- The repair shop owner who exposed Hunter Biden’s laptop files a defamation suit against Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., as well as CNN, The Daily Beast, and Politico.
Listen to the podcast below, or read the lightly edited transcript.
Doug Blair: My guest today is Bill Jacobson, a Cornell Law professor as well as founder of Legal Insurrection. Bill, welcome to the show.
Bill Jacobson: Thank you for having me on.
Blair: I wanted to have you on today to discuss this story that’s been going on for a very, very long time that hopefully had a pretty positive conclusion, but this is about the bakery and Oberlin College in Ohio. You’ve been following this story since 2019, so let’s set things up for our listeners. Can you briefly expand upon the background of this story?
Jacobson: Sure. The events took place the day after Election Day 2016. And that’s important because the Oberlin College campus was in meltdown because [Donald] Trump had won. And what happened was that Gibson’s Bakery and Mart—so it’s a bakery but it’s also kind of a mini-mart, if you want to call it, that services mostly the college—stopped a black student from Oberlin for shoplifting.
And the person was shoplifting, had bottle of wine tucked in his jacket and a few other things, and a scuffle ensued. And he was arrested as well as two fellow students from Oberlin, both of whom were black, who were also shoplifting, and they were in fact assaulting the clerk when the police arrived.
So this was a case of shoplifting, and shoplifting in the town of Oberlin had been a persistent problem. There was what was called a culture of shoplifting among the college students, so they were very alerted to shoplifting problems.
And what should have been a routine shoplifting stop and arrest erupted on campus with accusations of racial profiling and accusations and very vigorous protests outside. But what made this different is the college joined in.
It wasn’t just students, it was college administrators outside leading the protests, including the dean of students, who was ended up being a named defendant in the case, passing out flyers accusing the bakery of having assaulted the students and having a long history of racial profiling as well as other accusations.
But it was the accusation of racial profiling and the accusation of assault that would ultimately give rights to a libel case and what happened after that.
And we started covering it actually about a week after the incident. So we’ve been covering this almost since Day One in 2016. And what happened after that is the college cut them off from their contract with the food service company.
The bakery provided baked goods to the students through an intermediary food service company, they were kicked out of that. College basically announced a boycott of the bakery, denounce the bakery, and essentially the entire college community turned on this bakery with accusations of racism. And that’s how it all started.
Blair: Now, that libel trial just ended. I believe it ended positively for the Gibsons, they won $32 million in damages. Did the jury or did the judge involved in the trial see this as a relatively clear example of the college overstepping its bounds?
Jacobson: Well, they didn’t file suit for a year. So they filed suit in 2017, took two years to get to trial. So the trial started in May of 2019. We were the only national outlet to have a reporter in the courtroom reporting every single day of the trial. And so when the verdict came down, it was an $11 million compensatory verdict, and it was based on libel and defamation claims and tortious interference with their contract with the food service company and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
And so the compensatory verdict cumulatively—there were three plaintiffs, two individual Gibsons plus the bakery, cumulatively was $11 million. They then had a separate trial later in June of 2019 for punitive damages. The trial was bifurcated at the request of the college, so the Gibsons didn’t get to put into evidence all the really nasty evidence until the punitive’s trial. And that came back with a $33 million punitive verdict that ended up being knocked down under Ohio tort reform.
So the end result was a verdict for $25 million, plus $6 million in attorney’s fees. So the judgment was $32 million. It then spent almost the next two years in the appeals court, and the appeals court just recently, and that’s what’s been in the headline, less than a month ago the appeals court upheld the verdict. And it was based on standard law and standard evaluation of what constitutes defamation and libel.
So, for example, calling somebody a racist is not defamatory, that’s an opinion. But saying “have engaged in racial profiling,” that’s a statement of fact, racial profiling is a fact and tortious interference, etc.
So it’s been upheld so far with interest.
The college back in 2019 had to post a $36 million appeal bond to secure the interest that’s been running. Interest has been running at about 5%. I may be a little bit off on my math, but I think it’s been running about $4,000 a day since June of 2019. So they’re owed now right about $36 million.
And the case, there’s one last chance for Oberlin College to try to reverse it, which is to try to get the Ohio Supreme Court to hear the case. And that is not a given, you don’t have a right to have the Ohio Supreme Court hear the case. It’s very similar to the U.S. Supreme Court, they only take a small percentage of the cases that people want to have heard by them.
Whether they will take it or not we don’t know because those papers haven’t been filed yet. I just checked this morning, there’s nothing in the docket that indicates they filed to go to the Ohio Supreme Court, but we expect that they will.
Blair: In light of that, it doesn’t really seem like the school believes they’ve done anything wrong, they haven’t expressed remorse over what happened.
Jacobson: No, and that’s the truly astounding thing, and I think the jury saw that. I mean, we were getting reports, we were the only one really reporting every single day what was going on, and it was quite astounding throughout the case.
They have been completely unapologetic. They have been very aggressive toward this bakery. They continue to make their false accusations of racism against the bakery. They show no remorse whatsoever. And I think that came across to the jury in their attitudes on the witness stand. It really is astounding.
One of the things that came out during the testimony by David Gibson—who was essentially the person who ran the bakery, he’s now deceased. He saw the verdict, but he didn’t see the appeal, he didn’t live long enough.
And so what he testified is that, before they filed a lawsuit, he went and had a meeting with the college officials. And he said to them, “Look, I won’t file a lawsuit if you would just publicly issue a statement retracting the accusations of racism. You don’t even need to apologize, you just need to say we are not racist. We want to get our reputation back in this town.”
And they wouldn’t do it, they would not do it. And the result is several years of litigation, a lot of bad publicity, currently $36 million and still running unless they get it reversed by the Ohio Supreme Court.
This really is an example of people who have power and feel they have power over everybody in that town, and how dare this little bakery stand up to them.
They expected the bakery to take a knee, so to speak, expected the bakery to bend the knee and grovel, “Please, we’re sorry, we’re sorry.” But there was nothing to be sorry about, the evidence was clear, and they pleaded guilty. So they stopped people who were actually shoplifting. Nonetheless, the college over multiple administrations has been extraordinarily aggressive toward this little bakery.
Blair: Do we have any insight onto whether this is a widely shared opinion about the bakery? Do we know if the student body believes that the bakery’s racist, if there are teachers on the campus that believe that this bakery is racist?
Jacobson: Well, the evidence was that there were a lot of, obviously, protest people holding signs accusing them of being racist. There’s no history of it, there’s no history of problems with the bakery until this.
But subsequent to it, the bakery’s business is way down, students and faculty and the administration still don’t shop at the bakery. And you can imagine being in a small college town where the college dominates everything, if you’re a bakery in a town and no one in the college community will deal with you, that destroys your business.
So I don’t know the intimate details of their finances, but what’s been publicly reported is they are struggling. They are really struggling because while the town people still support them and still shop there, they’ve been cut off from the biggest entity in town, which is Oberlin College.
Blair: One of the things that does strike me about this case, and you sort of brought this up earlier, is that instead of just radical students going in and saying, “Oh, this is racist and you have to stop,” it was the administrators in the school itself that really went hardcore on this, and it’s kind of been the primary driver of this case. Why do you think that Oberlin was so aggressive in trying to get this bakery shut down?
Jacobson: I’ve covered Oberlin College for my website, going back long before this case. At The Daily Signal, you’re always looking for content, the beast must be fed, you must have news flow free, and Oberlin College just fed us a lot of material over the years.
There was the protest over the dining hall serving supposedly culturally appropriated Asian food. There was a racist hoax on campus where two white liberal students spread very nasty flyers and posters and the campus erupted in controversy. And it turned out, when they got caught, they just said, “Oh, well, we were just trying to spark a conversation about race, OK?”
So it just has this long history of problems, and so … we followed it. And so when I saw this little bakery protest, we followed it. The problem with Oberlin College is the problem with a lot of college administrators and administrations, they are extremely weak, they cannot stand up to the students, they are scared to death of the students.
Not long before this, the students had issued a 14-page ultimatum to the university, which they did reject, but some pretty outrageous things in there, including firing certain professors, promoting to tenure certain professors that they liked, certain black professors that they wanted promoted immediately to tenure, all sorts of demands.
So this is an administration that, whether they did it consciously or subconsciously, I think were afraid that student anger the day after Trump won would be directed toward the administration. And so I think this was a redirection of student anger toward this shiny object, Gibson’s Bakery, as opposed to having it turned toward the administration because there’d been a lot of student protests versus the administration as well.
So I think it’s a combination of weakness, a combination of some in the administration were true believers in this sort of activism, and they’re scared to death of the students. I think it’s just a bad combination and, unfortunately, it’s a combination we see on a lot of college campuses even today.
Blair: One of the members of the administration who is sort of central to this story is a woman named Meredith Raimondo who it seems to me from the reporting was the ringleader really of this campaign against the bakery. She’s landed on her feet at another college over in Georgia, but did she face any consequences at all for kind of instigating this campaign against the bakery?
Jacobson: Not that I can see, nobody did, and that’s the amazing thing.
In academia, people tend to fail up. So the president at the time of this incident and for the year or two after, who’s not the president now, actually got a job at a bigger university. So he is now president of a big university, I think it’s Pace University, I might be wrong on that, in New York City. So he oversaw this complete debacle and what happens? He gets a better job someplace else. Meredith Raimondo, I don’t know if the job she has now is better, but it’s equivalent, so she suffered no consequences whatsoever.
The general counsel of Oberlin College who oversaw this legal strategy and whose communications almost became an issue in the punitive damage case because after the $11 million compensatory, quite unbelievably, she sent an email blast to the entire college community criticizing the jury—I mean, who does that when the jury now has to decide on punitive damages? Now, the jury never got really to hear about that letter, the plaintiffs tried to, but a complete botched strategy, she is now general counsel at a larger university.
As far as I can tell, nobody has suffered a single consequence at Oberlin College because of this.
Blair: I think one of the things that just really strikes me about this story is the fact that the school just lied. It seems like there’s really no way to get around that point, that if the actual culprits of the shoplifting confessed to doing it, and they still continue to argue that it was racial profiling. How often do we see that universities will just do that, they will just lie to take down their opponents?
Jackson: They may not consider it a lie, they probably think there was racial profiling here and the Gibsons just got lucky, so to speak, that it turned out the person was shoplifting. “But why did you target this person?” And the Gibsons would say, “Well, we targeted because we saw something bulging out of his jacket.”
And in fact, if you go over the police reports, and again, I think the testimony was they suffered about $10,000 a year in losses due to shoplifting, and all the stores in downtown. The students just felt it was their right to steal from stores.
So there are a fair number of statistics on this, which show who the Gibsons had called the police on for shoplifting, and they’d done it quite frequently. And the statistics show that the demographic of who they called the police on matches very closely the demographic of the town.
So there’s no evidence there that they disproportionately called the police for shoplifting on black students, or students, or anybody else.
So no, there’s nothing there, but those accusations are so easy for them to make, the accusation of racism, it’s become a weapon. I don’t think they even really think about it anymore. It’s a way to silence somebody and to put somebody back on their heels and on the defensive.
Whether Oberlin did it intentionally or not wasn’t actually relevant because the Gibsons were held to be private citizens, so all they had to show was negligence, they didn’t have to show knowledge of the falsity of it. …
But I think that the college just assumes white business owner, black students stopped, it must be racism. I mean, that’s what our society is, in their view. So I don’t know if they consciously thought they were lying, but they certainly disregarded the facts.
Blair: You’ve mentioned a little bit about how Gibson’s Bakery was very negatively affected by this, even to today that their business is not doing as well as it used to. Is there anything that they could have done to maybe mitigate the damage from this type of attack or was it literally just a matter of the school says one thing and that’s really all that matters?
Jacobson: I think what may or may not have helped them is if they had groveled, OK? If they had confessed to their sins, if they had admitted everything, perhaps the college would’ve been more lenient on them.
We don’t know that because we can’t undo what happened and undo history. But I think that’s probably the only way because the college community was so against them that you had a choice to either beg for forgiveness, which they wouldn’t do because they didn’t think they did anything wrong, or fight.
I’m not sure they could really do anything else here unless they wanted to falsely admit that they had engaged in an active racism.
This a bakery that was fifth generation, had many minority employees. In fact, one of the key witnesses against Meredith Raimondo was a black male employee of the bakery who’d been there, I forget, 10, 20, 30 years, however long it was, who said that he saw Raimondo “handing out stacks of these defamatory flyers.”
She had testified that she only handed one to a reporter, and he testified to the contrary that he saw her handing them out and also giving stacks of them to students to spread around.
So this was a bakery that had very good relationships with the minority community, had minority employees, and they were not going to admit that they did something wrong. The bakery was fifth generation, I think it was started in 1878 or something like that. It was started by their family, it’s always been in the family, and so they just were not going to admit falsely.
Now, David Gibson, who passed away in 2000, about six months after—I think it was—the verdict, his father who was almost 90, so-called Grandpa Gibson just passed away about two, three months ago.
So Grandpa Gibson, the testimony was at trial that his biggest fear is that he would go to his grave being known in the community as a racist because, in fact, he was the opposite. He was somebody who was active in the civil rights movement in their early ’60s. He had always been somebody who had advocated for equality and had treated people fairly, and it really deeply affected them, these accusations.
And he didn’t live to see the verdict upheld, but he did live to see the verdict and see at least his family’s name cleared to a certain extent.
So I think what the universities and what now euphemistically is called wokesters, which I think is too kind word for them, they throw these accusations around frivolously and tactically, but those accusations don’t negatively affect people who actually are racist because they don’t care. OK? It affects people like the Gibsons who were not racist, who had devoted their entire lives to civil rights and to equality in the community.
And for people like the Gibsons, these were extremely serious accusations, and these were the sort of accusations that they did not want to just falsely admit to. And I think that’s what happened here.
Blair: As we begin to wrap-up here, I want to ask you briefly, as we’ve seen the results of this verdict and we’ve seen the results of this case play out, what are the big-picture implications for this? How do other colleges maybe see this and think, “What should we be doing differently?”
Jacobson: I get asked that question a lot: “Does this prove that you can fight against the university?” And what people have to understand is that Gibson’s Bakery fought this tooth and nail, and they still are. They fought everything. They spent over $5 million in attorney’s fees fighting this. They have fought it every inch of the way, and they continue to. The litigation has outlived the two main proprietors of the bakery, Grandpa Gibson and David Gibson, they’re now gone.
And so I think, unfortunately, the takeaway here is that while colleges need to be more cautious, they need to be very careful about when they join in student activism and the risks from that legally, but it also shows that these colleges and these universities are some of the most vicious litigants I’ve seen. Before I joined Cornell Law School for 22 years, I was a civil litigator, they fight like everything.
And I think one of the big takeaways is that these are very powerful entities. They fight more viciously than your local chemical company. And they wrap themselves in this “holier than thou” attitude because they’re educators and, therefore, somehow they have some sort of moral superiority. But as we’ve seen in the Oberlin College case, they don’t, they really are just vicious, vicious, litigants, and people who have no trouble smearing others in trying to destroy them.
So I think the takeaway is how dangerous woke control of corporate entities really is.
Blair: That was Bill Jacobson, a Cornell Law professor as well as founder of the Legal Insurrection law blog. Bill, thank you so much for your time.
Jacobson: Thank you.
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