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Oberlin College Appeals Gibson's Bakery Decision

The school is appealing the $31 million judgement in the Gibson's Bakery case, saying students were exercising their First Amendment rights during the protests. [Walter Novak / Oberlin College]
A sign for Oberlin College.

Oberlin College announced Tuesday it is appealing a judgment of $31 million in damages awarded to Gibson’s Bakery earlier this year.

The appeal is “grounded in the board’s fiduciary responsibility to the College’s long-term financial health,” said the chairman of the school’s board of trustees, Chris Canavan, in a press release.

In the appeal, Oberlin claims students were exercising their First Amendment rights and the college worked to make sure protests were peaceful. 

“The verdict and judgment in this case set a precedent that endangers free speech on campuses and for all Americans,” said Lee Levine, one of the Ballard Spahr lawyers representing Oberlin in the appeal. “The jury was allowed to award substantial damages for speech that is protected by the Constitution. The case should absolutely be reviewed by an appellate court.”

Gibson’s Bakery lawyer Lee Plakas said the appeal came “as no surprise.”

“The jury’s verdict sent a clear message that institutions like Oberlin College should not be permitted to bully others while hiding behind the claimed shield of free speech,” Plakas said in a statement. “There are no exemptions from the law of defamation — a fact we trust will be confirmed during the appeal process.”

In June, Oberlin was originally ordered to pay $44 million to the bakery after a 2016 shoplifting incident lead to protests and charges of racism. The amount was later reduced to $31 million because Ohio state law caps punitive damages.

In 2016, Allyn Gibson, whose family owns the bakery, confronted and chased a black student who had first tried to use a fake ID and then shoplifted wine. Gibson is white. A fight started when two other black students jumped in.

The next day, students massed outside the bakery, claiming the incident was racially motivated.

After a series of protests, the bakery sued, saying the school’s president and faculty participated in the protests and damaged the business’ reputation. The school cut ties with the bakery during the protests, resumed ordering form the bakery, and then cut ties again after Gibson’s sued.

The black students pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. They also read statements into the record saying the bakery wasn’t racist.