Oberlin and the price of wokeness
An American college has discovered that PC mobs don’t always get away scot-free.
Oberlin College is known for its ‘social justice’ activism and is considered one of the most PC colleges in the US. In recent years, Oberlin students have demanded trigger warnings on classic literature, called for a ban on ‘F’ (failed) grades, and complained about the cultural appropriation of sushi in the dining hall. So, it wasn’t all that surprising when, in November 2016, students launched a campaign against a local bakery, claiming it was racist for calling the police on a shoplifter who happened to be black.
What is surprising is the ultimate outcome of these protests. Last week, a jury determined that Oberlin owes Gibson’s Bakery a whopping $44million in damages (which may get reduced to $33million). This should be a wake-up call to Oberlin and other colleges: go woke, go broke.
This is a David versus Goliath case, featuring a fifth-generation family business up against an elite higher-education institution (where it costs about $280,000 to obtain a degree in four years, and a majority of the students are from families in the top 10 per cent of earners).
The details of the court case – as reported by the Legal Insurrection website – were eye-opening. The case exposed how Oberlin’s administration was willing to engage in a campaign based on false allegations of racism, a campaign that sought to smear and destroy this small downtown shop. The millions of dollars in damages spoke to the jury’s assessment of not only economic loss, but also the need to punish Oberlin for the malice it displayed. The verdict will not bankrupt Oberlin, but the case has revealed the college’s intellectual and moral bankruptcy.
The basic facts of the case are straightforward. On 9 November 2016 – the day after Trump was elected president – an African-American student attempted to leave Gibson’s with two wine bottles under his shirt. Seeing this, Allyn Gibson, the shop-owner’s grandson, called the police and then apprehended the student outside the store. This led to a scuffle, with two Oberlin black female students joining in. The police broke it up and arrested the students. All three suspects later pleaded guilty, and the young man said he didn’t believe Gibson’s actions in detaining him were racially motivated.
Immediately after the shoplifting arrests, Oberlin students accused Gibson’s of racism and racial profiling. They launched protests at the bakery, and handed out fliers saying ‘DON’T BUY’, and calling Gibson’s ‘a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION’. They also claimed the shoplifter was ‘assaulted’ by Allyn Gibson.
These allegations were false. The students in the shop that day were not racially profiled, and Gibson’s did not have a history of discriminating against blacks. In fact, police records showed that the racial composition of shoplifting in Gibson’s over the past five years reflected the overall make-up of the Oberlin community.
It was also widely understood in the town of Oberlin that the racism charges were bogus. An employee in Oberlin’s communications department, Emily Crawford, tried to warn her fellow administrators in an email: ‘I have talked to 15 townie friends who are PoC (persons of color) and they are disgusted and embarrassed by the protest. In their view, the kid was breaking the law period… To them this is not a race issue at all and they do not believe the Gibsons are racist. They believe the students have picked the wrong target.’
A number of black witnesses testified on behalf of the Gibsons. Clarence ‘Trey’ James, an African-American who had worked at the store since 2013, said he didn’t see the store treat customers or employees in a racist way: ‘Never, not even a hint. Zero reason to believe, zero evidence of that.’ The single father of a teenager, James was invited to the Gibson’s home for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner.
The verdict is a win for the little guy, a win for the truth. But does it, as some critics argue, represent a violation of free speech? No. US law provides speakers with a wide degree of protection from legal punishment, but it also comes with limits. In particular, it is possible to be sued for libel, as Oberlin was.
Also, American law grants people a large amount of leeway with respect to comments about public figures, such as politicians and celebrities, but less so when it comes to spreading damaging falsehoods about private individuals and small businesses. These libel laws provide people with some legal protection against attempts to destroy their reputations and livelihoods. Essentially, in the Gibson case, the jury was convinced that Oberlin disseminated false statements of specific facts (not mere general opinions) about Gibson’s, and engaged in economic reprisals based on these false accounts.
Some argue that the verdict unfairly holds Oberlin College accountable for the speech of its students. The outcome represented ‘a double-barreled threat to free speech on campus’, according to First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams. ‘The notion that uninhibited student speech can lead to vast financial liability for the universities at which it occurs threatens both the viability of educational institutions and ultimately the free speech of their students.’ This also happens to be the line Oberlin’s administration is taking. As Oberlin VP and general-counsel, Donica Thomas Varner, wrote in an email to the Oberlin community: ‘Colleges cannot be held liable for the independent actions of their students.’
But this interpretation is wrong. The jury didn’t hold Oberlin liable for its students’ actions or speech – it held Oberlin responsible for its own actions and words. The jury found that Oberlin was intimately involved in the smear campaign against Gibson’s in its own right, and that is what led to the damages.
Here the evidence against Oberlin was damning. The administration, and especially its vice-president and dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, actively supported the protesters. According to witnesses, Raimondo was orchestrating the protest, speaking on a bullhorn and handing out stacks of the fliers that urged a boycott and accused Gibson’s of racism. Protesters were instructed to go to an administration office to make more copies of the fliers. Students who attended the protest were excused from classes, and officials provided pizza and beverages for them.
A few weeks after the protests started, Raimondo instructed the cafeteria to stop buying food supplies from Gibson’s. Another official tried to use this as leverage against the bakery, telling Gibson’s ‘once the charges [against the shoplifter] are dropped, orders will resume’.
It wasn’t necessarily the case that the administrators, rather than the students, were leading this campaign, but at a minimum they were working closely together. At times, Raimondo seemed to indicate that she did have control over the students. When a faculty member in the theatre department wrote to a local paper, criticising the Oberlin campaign, Raimondo said in an email to her fellow administrators: ‘Fuck him. I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us.’ She clearly saw the students as her own army she could deploy when she wanted.
But, on other occasions, it appeared that the administration was deferring to the students, raising the question of whether there were any adults in charge. Oberlin’s president, Marvin Krislov, sent an email to a member of the student senate, seeking advice. ‘Meredith [Raimondo] and I were just talking and I wanted to seek your guidance about what I (and the college) might say or do about the Gibson’s situation.’ The student gave the green light to the message, because it backed the activists’ false allegations: ‘The greatest part is [that you are saying] there is more to the story than the police report or what is generally accepted.’
The administration seemed to live in fear of the students. In a telling moment in the trial, Ferdinand Protzman, chief of staff for administration, testified that the administration cut ties with the bakery because they feared students would create a ‘tantrum’ on campus, especially in the cafeteria during dinner. Specifically, they imagined angry students might throw Gibson’s food on the floor of the cafeteria and stomp on it. ‘Doesn’t that sound more like a nursery school than a college?’, Gibson’s lawyer asked. ‘Nursery school students do throw food on the floor, yes’, replied Protzman.
Due to Oberlin’s war on them, Gibson’s claimed that they suffered damage to their reputation, economic welfare and community standing, and they seemed to be able to establish that convincingly. Sales dropped by about 50 per cent, which forced staffing cuts, and the family members worked without pay. Some employees had their tires slashed. They sought multiple times to settle with Oberlin before suing them, but the college refused. If not for the verdict, Gibson’s may have gone under.
The Oberlin case reveals more than the usual story of a few campus crazies getting out of control. For a start, it shows how the social-justice agenda has been institutionalised now, taking the place of the traditional intellectual mission. Administrators play a facilitating if not leading role in setting this agenda, including helping with protests to prove they mean it. Across the US, colleges have developed bloated bureaucracies over the past two decades, with spending on administrators increasing at twice the rate of spending on teachers (and adjuncts replacing full-time professors). These officials dominate student life, setting the rules for everything from freshmen orientation to ‘microaggression’ guidelines and kangaroo courts to handle sexual-assault accusations.
More importantly, the Oberlin case has shone a light on how the culture in colleges has become deeply corrupted. Courtroom details showed how Oberlin’s pursuit of wokeness had left it devoid of a moral compass. An example is how the administration could not bring itself to condemn shoplifting. President Krislov expressed concerns to his fellow leaders about the wording of an email to students: ‘[I] worry that mentioning shoplifting will trigger [a bad reaction by students]… How about softening. What about reference to tense times?’ In negotiations before Gibson’s filed its suit, Oberlin said it would consider reinstating business only if Gibson’s would agree to not push charges against first-time student shoplifters. The bakery was already losing thousands of dollars a year in stolen goods, so of course it would not agree to the administration’s proposed free pass.
And what kind of message would that send to students? Shoplifting among students is already outrageously bad: Oberlin town police reported that 83 per cent of shoplifting arrests were Oberlin students. A 2017 article in Oberlin’s magazine discussed the school’s ‘Culture of Theft’, almost as if it was a fun rite of passage. One bookstore owner said she loses $10,000 a year in stolen goods to students. The article’s author himself admitted he shoplifted from the storeowners he interviewed. This is really sick: here are some of the wealthiest students in the country getting their kicks off from stealing from the poor townies. Clearly, the moral rot runs deep in this institution.
And it is because the root problem runs deep that I don’t go along with those who believe the Oberlin verdict is the start of a new opposition focused on the law. For instance, David French, writing in the National Review, says the Oberlin lawsuit is a ‘blueprint for fighting back’, and he expects to see similar suits follow. Sure, it is reassuring that a jury of the public didn’t accept the Oberlin activists’ critical race theory view of the world, in which white storeowners cannot call the police if the shoplifter is black. But a broader political and culture change is needed to counter this trend. This is a more widespread problem than a few social-justice warriors on campus, as it can be found outside of academia, too, in the corporate, media, artistic and other worlds.
And, in the Oberlin controversy, I have to ask: where were the students who disagreed with the administration and activist students, and supported the bakery? This silent majority has got to stop being silent. There should have been a big pro-Gibson’s movement among students, which would have had great potential for success. They would have not only had the facts on their side – they could also have forged a strong multi-racial alliance with town people. It was a missed opportunity to start the kind of real cultural fightback that is needed – although it is still not too late.
Following the verdict, Oberlin says it will appeal, and portrays itself as the victim. They really should apologise to Gibson’s and fire the entire leadership. Oberlin’s woke students, faculty and administrators readily throw around the term ‘white privilege’ as a slur and an accusation, yet the truth is that they and the elite institution they represent have real privilege and power, and they have abused it. Here was a family bakery that had survived more than 130 years, including through the Great Depression, when it kept its doors open and gave free food to poor people, and yet it was almost crushed by an administration-backed woke mob irresponsibly spewing lies about racism.
Let’s hope Gibson’s stays open another 130 years, and outlasts Oberlin, which doesn’t deserve to call itself a college.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.
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