Pedestrians pass the storefront of Gibson's Food Mart & Bakery in Oberlin, Ohio Nov. 22, 2017. (Photo: AP)
Owners of a market in a famously liberal town were awarded $44 million in damages this week in their lawsuit claiming Oberlin College hurt their business and libeled them in a case some observers said embodied racial hypersensitivity and political correctness run amok.
A jury in Lorain County awarded David Gibson, son Allyn Gibson and Gibson’s Bakery, of Oberlin, $33 million in punitive damages Thursday. That comes on top of an award a day earlier of $11 million in compensatory damages.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you have spoken,” Oberlin College attorney Rachelle Zidar told the jury Thursday before the larger award was announced, according to the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram . “You have sent a profound message. We have heard you. Believe me when I say, ‘Colleges across the country have heard you.’”
Oberlin College spokesman Scott Wargo declined to comment after the award was announced.
Problems between the Gibsons, their once-beloved bakery and the college began in November 2016 after Allyn Gibson, who is white, confronted a black Oberlin student who had shoplifted wine. Two other black students joined in and assaulted Gibson, police said.
The day after the arrests, hundreds of students protested outside the bakery . Members of Oberlin College’s student senate published a resolution saying Gibson’s had “a history of racial profiling and discriminatory treatment.”
When news of the protests spread online, bikers and counterprotesters soon converged on the town to jeer students and make purchases from Gibson’s. Conservatives derided the students on social media as coddled “snowflakes” with a mob mentality, while students attacked the store as a symbol of systemic racism.
The Gibsons sued Oberlin and the dean of students in November 2017, accusing faculty members of encouraging the protests. The lawsuit said college tour guides informed prospective students that Gibson’s is racist.
The Gibsons said the protests devastated their business and forced them to lay off workers. They said they haven’t paid themselves or other family members since the protests.
The three black students later pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and read statements in court that said Allyn Gibson’s actions weren’t racially motivated.
The school initially stopped doing business with Gibson’s, later resumed the relationship and ended it again when the Gibsons filed their lawsuit.
Oberlin has long been a bastion of liberalism. During the 1830s, it became one of the first colleges to admit blacks and women. During the 1850s, it became a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Today, about 15% of Oberlin’s 8,300 residents are black.
More recently, news articles quoted students decrying the school dining hall’s sushi and Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches as cultural appropriation.
The Gibsons’ attorneys said the college, which charges $70,000 a year for tuition and room and board, has an $887 million endowment and can easily afford to pay the family what they are owed.
Oberlin’s tree-lined campus is roughly 35 miles (56 kilometers) southwest of downtown Cleveland.