The Gibson’s Bakery Case in Oberlin
When we hear the words “reaction” and “reactionary” we usually think of the rightwing. More and more, in our angry and polarized environment these days, the liberal left is falling into this same behavior. I wrote about this in January when I analyzed the Lincoln Memorial confrontation between Catholic high school student Nick Sandmann and Indian activist Nathan Phillips. (See “A Teaching Moment.”)
Events following an incident at Gibson’s Bakery in Oberlin, Ohio, serve as another example of this reaction, in my opinion.
A Black youth was caught shoplifting at the store in November 2016. A rush to judgement followed in which the Gibsons were cast as racists who victimize minorities through racial profiling. There were student protests and a boycott. Despite the conclusion people were reaching about the Gibsons, there is no historical record to support it. No prior incidents or complaints. Indeed, their lawsuit filed with the Court of Commons Pleas in Lorain County (Gibson Bakery v Oberlin College) cites a report issued by the Oberlin Police Department.
“In response to the Defendants’, and other demonstrators’, rampant accusations of Plaintiffs’ racial profiling, the Oberlin Police Department conducted an investigation and found a complete lack of any evidence of racism. By way of example, the Oberlin Police Department explained that of the 40 adults arrested for shoplifting at Gibson’s Bakery in the past five (5) years, only six (6) were African-American suspects.” (Page 13)
This case has been unique because administrators at Oberlin College actively participated with the students and joined the boycott briefly by cancelling purchases for the school’s food service. The Gibsons sued and earlier this month a jury awarded them over $44 million in compensatory and punitive damages for libel and slander. There has been extensive national coverage including the New York Times and Washington Post.
I won’t go into more detail myself beyond what I’ve written. Instead I wanted to share a few articles here that I think merit attention because this is an important case. The full story will emerge as you review the items below.
A Threat to Free Speech?
Opponents of the Gibsons and their lawsuit claim the Court judgement will have a chilling effect on free speech. I disagree. The issue has never been a challenge to the students themselves and their right to hold an opinion, correct or not, and to protest around that opinion. The Gibsons didn’t sue the students. They sued the college for throwing its institutional weight and prestige behind unsubstantiated claims — which is slander and libel — and the jury agreed.
While the right of students to speak out was not at issue in this case — and should be rigorously defended at all times — I think we all have a responsibility to consider matters dispassionately and check our facts. Just because something matches our opinions and biases, and “seems true,” it might not be.
WKYC-TV in Cleveland ran these two broadcasts about the case. I’m posting them in reverse order than broadcast, starting with a general overview and interview with the Gibsons. The second video features an interview with the Gibson’s attorneys.
Reports & Commentaries
I wanted to share several articles of interest about the case.
- USA Today — David Gibson, co-owner of Gibson’s Bakery, wrote an opinion piece in USA Today.
- The Militant — I have attended many socialist conventions and conferences in Oberlin dating back to the 1970s. Each day I’ve stopped at Gibson’s for a newspaper, danish and cup of coffee. Full disclosure! The Militant newspaper, which reflects the work and opinions of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), ran a story.
- Quillette — This right-leaning online publication has posted interesting coverage by Daniel McGraw. He attended the court proceedings in the Gibson case and quotes source documentation.
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