A protest against racism, and a $31.5 million defamation award

Free speech and the price of defamation

The initial confusion, recorded on a police body camera, bordered at times on chaos. "Are you serious?" The student cried out. "Oh, my God, why?  I really didn't.  Why are you arresting me?  Why are you arresting me?"

White cop, black suspect.  A scene many of us might be tempted to process through our own, personal biases:

Police officer:  "Why do you think you're gonna die?"
Student:  "Because I'm scared of police! I'm a black man in custody. I've never been in the back of a police car!"

At court, roughly nine months later, the young man, a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, received a reduced sentence after pleading guilty to attempted theft, essentially confirming the police report of what had happened.

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After a student from Oberlin College was arrested for shoplifting, sparking charges of racial profiling, the owners of Gibson's Bakery accused the college of aiding demonstrators and causing reputational damage. CBS News

David Gibson, one of the owners of Gibson's Bakery in Oberlin, described what happened when his son, Allyn, was at the cash register when the student tried to buy a bottle of wine: "My son confronted him and would not accept the false ID. Realized it was a fake ID as well.  But realized that he was also trying to steal two bottles of wine. And at that point he denied him the sale.

"He attempted to take a picture of him with his phone. At that point, the young man took his phone and shoved it in his face and was able to run out of the store.

"My son and I both pursued [him].  My son's quite a bit faster than I am at this age.  And outside of the store [he] tried to detain him by hugging him.  And he fell to the ground.  And I witnessed all of this.  And then we had multiple people come in and start hitting my son."

But there is an alternate version of events:

One eyewitness, recorded by the police body camera, said at the scene: "And he comes running out of nowhere and tackles him and shoves him … And then you guys came and arrested them instead of the person who assaulted this kid for no reason!  And we all, he saw it; there were, like, three more people inside who saw it.  And we can all testify that that is what happened."

The police weren't buying that version; but David Gibson knew that trouble was brewing. When the officer at the scene told him, "We're not going off what they're saying; we're charging him with robbery," Gibson remarked, "They're going to be trashing us."

It wasn't long coming. The next morning, in fact, a crowd appeared chanting, "No justice, no peace!  No justice, no peace!"

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Oberlin College students protest outside GIbson's Bakery.  CBS News

Oberlin is one of the most liberal college campuses in the country, and remember, Donald Trump has just been elected president the previous day.  Totally unrelated to what had happened at Gibson's bakery, but it does help explain the mood.

One demonstrator said, "We are here today because yesterday three students from the Africana community were assaulted and arrested as a result of a history of racial profiling and racial discrimination by Gibson's Bakery, located 23 West College Street."

Which is where generations of Gibsons had been running the bakery for more than a hundred years.

Senior contributor Ted Koppel asked, "You had been branded as racists and you felt that was unjust, unfair, untrue?"

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David Gibson, one of the owners of Gibson's Bakery. CBS News

"Absolutely," said Gibson "To us, that was critical.  Our feeling is that, that's what you have in life is your reputation. It had taken generations to build this reputation for us. And in just one day, we lost it."

That damage to their reputation has led to what the Gibsons claim is a 50% loss of business.  When the college refused to issue a statement exonerating the family of racism, the Gibsons filed a lawsuit.

Nathan Carpenter, editor-in-chief of the college paper, the Oberlin Review, said, "I think for me, when I'm looking at this as somebody who's been covering it since the lawsuit was filed, the questions at hand are no longer about shoplifting and no longer about whether students shoplifted. It's about whether students were, you know, in the right to say what they said during the initial protests, and whether the college is on the hook [for it]."

That is precisely the point; and last June a local jury found Oberlin College on the hook for $44 million in damages. The court has since reduced the award to $31.5 million, and Oberlin College has appealed that judgment.

So, the fundamental questions remain:  Were the students justified in exercising their freedom of speech? And why is Oberlin responsible for what they said?

"I think the response to that is, let students be students, but don't aid and abet, support or encourage them when they're clearly doing something reckless," said Lee Plakas, who is lead attorney in the Gibsons' lawsuit against Oberlin. If he and his clients ever collect, $6.5 million has been allocated to legal costs.

"They tried to characterize this as a protest," Plakas said. "I think they turned it into a party to appease the students. They ordered pizza, used college funds to order pizza for the demonstrators. They used college funds for food and drinks and refreshments. They used college funds to buy gloves to make sure that the protesters' hands wouldn't get cold."

Koppel asked Carmen Twilley Ambar, who was not then, but is now President of Oberlin College:  "Maybe what was before the jury was that the college administration did nothing to ameliorate the demonstration, did nothing to calm the students down? If anything, they appeared to be supportive of the demonstration without at that time knowing the facts."

"I don't think that's factually accurate," said Ambar.

"Well, did they know the facts at the time?"

"The college didn't know the facts. But it's not true that the college supported the demonstration."

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Oberlin College president Carmen Twilley Ambar, with "Sunday Morning" senior contributor Ted Koppel. CBS News

"Well, let's take each of the sort of individual charges that were made against the college. The purchasing and handing out of gloves?"

"The college didn't pass out gloves and didn't hand out gloves," Ambar replied.

"Well, the college didn't, but people representing the college did," said Koppel.
"The college disputes those facts, that it 'handed out gloves.'"

"Where did the gloves come from?" Koppel asked.

"Well, the college disputes handing out gloves."

Factually correct, but still misleading.  A student bought the gloves, but only after sending an email, requesting reimbursement, to Meredith Raimondo, the Dean of Students.

"Hi," read the email. "If I bought 75-100 [dollars' worth] more worth of gloves to bring to the protest would it be possible to get reimbursed?"

And the Dean's reply? "Yes — bring the receipt to 105 Monday.  Thanks for helping folks stay warm."

Misty Smith, who was one of the jurors, said, "The evidence showed there was a receipt that they paid for the pizza.  There was a text with the student council, 'Can we get gloves?' And Meredith [Raimondo] was like, 'Yes, whatever.'"

Koppel asked, "You were personally convinced, and the other jurors were convinced, that the college supported the students financially?"

"100%!" Smith replied. "100%, they supported them."

The jury found, unanimously, that the college also helped students put out and distribute a defamatory flier which described Gibson's Bakery as "a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION."

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CBS News

The college suspended its daily order for bagels and donuts from the bakery.

Now, there are huge sums of money hanging in the balance, but to this day, the president of Oberlin makes allusions to a pattern of racist behavior – if not the specific incident that set things off three years ago.

Carmen Twilley Ambar said, "Well, the students plead guilty to shoplifting. There has been some debate about whether it was shoplifting or false ID."

"Well, it was both," Koppel said.

"Right.  Well, I think that one of the things that the college has always said is that the college has not, doesn't condone shoplifting, doesn't condone bad behavior by its students in any way, shape or form.  But what led up to the protest, and I think that's sort of, kind of the core issue here, was some series of things that happened before, some perspectives about people's experiences in the store."

"Well, tell me about those, then, and be specific. What specific incidents are you referring to that happened before?" Koppel asked.

"Well, I think that the specific incidents would be the perception by faculty and students and staff and other people in the town that there had been disparate treatment with respect to people of color in the store.  The way I would phrase it [is] kind of different 'lived experiences.'"

Dave O'Brien, who covered the trial for the local paper, the Chronicle Telegram, said, "This is all basically anecdotal evidence: People commenting on social media saying, 'I felt uncomfortable in there.  I felt like I was targeted because of the color of my skin.'"

David's father, Allyn Gibson, is 91.  Back in 2017, six months after the protests (and this may or may not have been related), someone came to his house in the middle of the night.  Gibson came out of the house, tripped, and broke his neck.

David Gibson said, "At that point, when he was in the hospital and we didn't know whether he was going to make it or not, he said to me that he had done everything right in his life, treated everyone equally and fairly, and that he would die being called a racist."

That was Dave Gibson's testimony at trial, and the impact on the jury was pretty much what you'd expect. Smith said, "He didn't want to pass away and on there are people thinking he was a racist. And you just feel the heart, like the whole courtroom just went [phew]. You know, like that, everyone I think was trying to hold back tears."

What the jury did not know, because it was not admitted at trial, was that Dave Gibson himself was in the terminal stage of pancreatic cancer.

Smith said, "It was very hard, because you think, then you're doing a self-reflection, like of yourself. How would you feel?" 

What is a reputation worth?  Koppel asked Ambar, "You're a very distinguished academic.  What is your reputation worth?"

"My reputation is important," she replied.

"It's worth a lot, isn't it?  I mean, if your reputation was destroyed overnight, you could hardly put a price on that, could you?"

Ambar said, "Well, I certainly believe that reputations are important.  But here's what's also true, and it's the jury system that we have, right? And the legal system that we have, that we go through a legal process that makes that determination.  And what the institution has said is that we believe that this determination was excessive."

Freedom of speech does not grant a license to libel. But there are real concerns that the size of this award -- $31.5 million – could undermine genuine freedom of speech on college campuses. 

And ultimately, the unanswerable question:  What is the fair price for a family's good name?  David Gibson, in the terminal stages of pancreatic cancer, may never know the answer.

       
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Story produced by Dustin Stephens.