Punished for ‘peaceful, lawful, and constitutionally protected’ student speech
It’s not Oberlin College’s fault – it’s the students’ fault. Yet the jury punished the college for the statements made by the students.
That is only one of the private college’s assertions in nearly 800 pages of legal arguments, exhibits and a “motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict” from the Gibson’s Bakery defamation lawsuit, The Chronicle-Telegram reports.
A jury awarded Gibson’s $44 million in damages – later reduced to $25 million by Lorain County Common Pleas Judge John Miraldi to comply with state law – for participating in a student-led defamation campaign against the local business.
The bakery had chased down student shoplifters and had them arrested, which student activists and administrators, led by Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, portrayed as racial profiling. The college shut down its commercial relationship with Gibson’s as well.
The college claims that Judge Miraldi botched his job:
Attorneys for Oberlin College cited errors in the jury interrogatories and instructions; mistakes in the allocation of compensatory damages; failure of the court to move the trial’s venue; errors in instructions on the definitions of libel and actual malice; incorrect and over-broad instructions by Miraldi; improper introduction of evidence; the awarding of “excessive” damages and a host of other issues in the 310-page filing.
It further claimed in the 232-page motion that the jury conflated Oberlin’s actions with statements made by Oberlin students “during peaceful, lawful, and constitutionally protected protests on issues of public concern.” Both the college and Raimondo were judged to have committed “libel actual malice” against the Gibsons.
Justice demands a new trial because of the “litany of errors” in the original trial, which included libel claims sent to jurors “under the wrong standards” and the improper exclusion of “half the evidence proffered” on Oberlin’s guilt, the college argued. All of this “resulted in wildly excessive verdicts influenced by passion and prejudice.”
It claimed it acted as it did because of “eyewitness reports of extrajudicial use of physical force by a Gibson’s Bakery employee,” police response and “customer reports of a pattern of discriminatory treatment of black people by Gibson’s Bakery employees.” The college didn’t bother to verify any of it before taking action against the bakery, the jury determined.
The Gibson’s plaintiffs responded with “125 pages of legal arguments and exhibits of their own Wednesday,” according to the Chronicle-Telegram, telling Judge Miraldi that Oberlin can’t suddenly raise a variety of issues at this stage. One of them: The college wanted the trial venue moved but didn’t raise the issue during jury selection.
The $25 million judgment wasn’t the extent of the financial pain on Oberlin. The judge also approved $6.5 million in attorney’s fees and expenses to be paid to the plaintiffs, and imposed a bond of $36 million on the college to cover the judgment plus interest while Oberlin appeals.
IMAGE: Oberlin College Archives