Oberlin College Lawsuit: Decoding the Controversy

The Oberlin College lawsuit, known as Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College, was a high-profile legal battle between the esteemed liberal arts college and a local Ohio bakery. The case centered on accusations of shoplifting, defamation, and racism, and raised important questions regarding the responsibilities of universities during student protests.

In November 2016, three black Oberlin College students were accused of shoplifting by the owners of Gibson’s Bakery, an establishment with deep roots in the Oberlin community. The incident sparked protests and accusations of racial profiling, leading to a tense situation between the College and the local business. In response to the protests and actions taken by some Oberlin College employees, the bakery filed a lawsuit claiming defamation and tortious interference, among other allegations.

After a high-stakes trial in 2019, the jury ruled in favor of Gibson’s Bakery and awarded the owners a staggering $44 million in damages, which was later reduced to $36.59 million due to Ohio legal caps. While Oberlin College initially planned to appeal the decision, they ultimately agreed to pay the $36.59 million judgment in September 2022, marking an end to the contentious legal battle.


Gibson’s Bakery, a fifth-generation establishment, has been serving the community of Oberlin for over a century. However, in recent years, the relationship between the college and the bakery has soured due to a series of incidents, culminating in the shoplifting accusations and subsequent trial.

The lawsuit filed by Gibson’s Bakery against Oberlin College raised questions about the responsibilities of universities during student protests and the implications of libel, tortious interference, and infliction of distress in such cases. The college was ultimately held responsible for defamatory actions and was ordered to pay $36.59 million to the bakery as a result of the lawsuit.

While Oberlin College has been known as a bastion of progressive politics and social activism, the outcome of this legal battle highlights the importance of maintaining a clear and neutral stance when dealing with local businesses, especially when passions run high within the student community.

Throughout the proceedings, both sides presented their cases, with the bakery emphasizing the damage done to their reputation, business, and family name by the college, while the college defended its actions as an appropriate response to concerns raised by the students. In the end, the court upheld a sizable judgment against Oberlin College, serving as a reminder for educational institutions to remain vigilant and accountable when dealing with the local community.

Incident Leading to Lawsuit

In November 2016, a shoplifting incident at Gibson’s Bakery near Oberlin College triggered a series of events that led to a high-profile lawsuit. The bakery’s owner, David Gibson, accused three Black students from Oberlin College of attempting to shoplift at the store.

The shoplifting incident involved one of the students, Jonathan Aladin, attempting to purchase a bottle of wine with a fake ID. When David Gibson confronted Aladin, an altercation ensued, and Aladin ended up running from the store while Gibson pursued him. During the chase, two other Black students, Endia Lawrence and another individual, joined the confrontation and physically attacked Gibson. The three students were subsequently arrested and charged with various crimes, including robbery and misdemeanor assault.

Following the arrests, tensions between the Oberlin College community and Gibson’s Bakery escalated. Many students and faculty members accused the bakery of racial profiling and discriminatory practices. This led to protests, boycotts, and a strained relationship between the college and the local community.

In response to the backlash, Oberlin College severed its business relationship with Gibson’s Bakery. However, the situation continued to intensify, culminating in the filing of a lawsuit against the college by Gibson’s Bakery in 2017. The bakery accused Oberlin College of libel, tortious interference, and infliction of distress, ultimately resulting in a lengthy legal battle which ended with Oberlin College being ordered to pay $36.59 million in damages to Gibson’s Bakery.

The Lawsuit

In response to these events, Gibson’s Bakery filed a defamation lawsuit against Oberlin College, accusing it of libel, slander, and causing intentional distress. The case ultimately revolved around the responsibilities of universities during student protests.

After a trial, the jury awarded Gibson’s Bakery a total of $44 million in damages which included both compensatory and punitive damages. The judgment was later reduced by the trial judge to $31.6 million. Oberlin College took the case to the Ninth District Court of Appeals, reaching the Supreme Court of Ohio. The lawsuit appeal eventually concluded with the court ruling that Oberlin College was to pay $36.59 million, which included awarded damages and accumulated interest.

As a result of the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision, Oberlin College and Conservatory initiated the payment in full of the $36.59 million judgment in the Gibson’s Bakery case. With this payment, the college is fulfilling its legal responsibility, and no further payments are required.

Protests and Social Impact

In response to the incident involving a black Oberlin College student arrested for shoplifting at Gibson’s Bakery, students at the college organized protests against the establishment. The students claimed Gibson’s Bakery was a racist establishment and called for a boycott of the business. Protesters distributed flyers accusing the bakery of racially profiling and targeting black Oberlin students.

As a part of the protest, college students demonstrated outside the bakery, calling attention to what they perceived to be an unjust situation. The protests and boycott attracted significant media attention, further amplifying the social impact on both Oberlin College and Gibson’s Bakery.

The involvement of Brandon McHugh, a faculty member at Oberlin, added another layer to the situation. McHugh played an active role in supporting the student protests by providing resources and guidance. His participation and the college’s connection to the protests raised questions about the responsibilities of educational institutions during times of student activism.

The impact of the protests, along with the eventual multimillion-dollar defamation award against Oberlin College, sent a message to colleges and universities across the nation. It became clear to all that institutions must carefully navigate the line between supporting student activism and avoiding potential legal ramifications.

Overall, the protests and social impact of the Oberlin College lawsuit not only affected the parties involved but also sparked a conversation about the role educational institutions should play in the face of student activism and the potential consequences of their actions.

Motion to Appeal

In June 2022, Oberlin College filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of Ohio concerning the Gibson’s Bakery defamation case. This highly publicized lawsuit originally resulted in a $25 million judgment against Oberlin College, which the college has since challenged.

The Ohio Supreme Court provided a ruling in August 2022, stating that Oberlin College does not have to pay the $36 million judgment during the appeals process. This decision came as a relief to the college, allowing them additional time to contest the original ruling without the immediate financial consequences. The case received significant attention from various organizations filing amicus briefs in support of Oberlin College’s appellate review request.

Unfortunately for Oberlin College, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected their appeal of the $36 million defamation verdict in a narrow 4-3 decision. This outcome confirmed the lower court’s ruling and required the college to pay the damages to Gibson’s Bakery.

Throughout the legal process, Oberlin College sought the support of the College of Appeals and Ohio Court of Appeals. The institution aimed for a fair review of the case, emphasizing its impact on higher education institutions and raising critical questions about defamation and racial issues. However, the verdict ultimately upheld the original judgement in favor of Gibson’s Bakery.

Insurance Companies

The lawsuit includes the following companies: Lexington Insurance Company, United Educators Insurance, Mount Hawley Insurance Company, and StarStone Specialty Insurance Company. Lexington Insurance Company is a New York-based insurance company, while United Educators Insurance is headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland. Mount Hawley Insurance Company operates out of Peoria, Illinois, and StarStone Specialty Insurance Company is located in Cincinnati.

Oberlin College argues that the insurance companies should cover the multimillion-dollar judgment won by Gibson’s Bakery in 2019, and filed the suit in Lorain County Common Pleas Court in April. The case has generated significant attention due to the high stakes and the ongoing relationship between the College and the Bakery.

Community and Business Relationship

The relationship between Oberlin College and the local businesses has seen both cooperation and conflict. The college students and residents of Oberlin rely on these businesses for their day-to-day needs, while businesses benefit from the patronage of the college community. Campus food providers and city organizations recognize the importance of maintaining a healthy partnership with the college to support the local economy.

One notable example of collaboration is the numerous local businesses offering discounts and special promotions for Oberlin College students. These incentives create a positive atmosphere of mutual support, as they encourage students to frequent these establishments, thereby fostering economic activity within the City of Oberlin.

Several events and initiatives are organized to promote interaction between the college and the local community. These programs may include community service days, meet and greets with local business owners, and collaborative marketing campaigns showcasing what the city has to offer.

Consequences and Impact on Reputation

The healing process for the involved parties has been slow and painful for everyone. The college’s reputation has taken a hit, which may have long-term implications on its ability to attract students and faculty. Academic institutions thrive on their reputation and the quality of their academic and student experience. As such, the negative publicity generated by the lawsuit can potentially affect the university’s future in these areas.

Moreover, for universities across the nation, the Oberlin case serves as a cautionary tale. Institutions must be careful in navigating and addressing similar events, as they risk damaging their reputation and potentially facing legal ramifications. In the highly competitive world of academia, maintaining a neutral and clear stance on sensitive issues is crucial in avoiding pitfalls that may impact the college’s image.

Final Remarks

The relationship between the college and the local bakery was significantly strained due to the contentious events that unfolded. As a renowned institution advocating for social justice, Oberlin College found itself navigating the complexities that revolve around political correctness. At the same time, the case highlighted the role of faculty members in promoting and protecting students’ interests while remaining aware of their own responsibilities and limitations.

The significance of free speech and freedom of speech, particularly under the realm of the First Amendment, came to the forefront during the trial. Simultaneously, the importance of truth-seeking and avoiding exaggerated claims became evident not only for the institution but also for the larger higher education community.

In conclusion, the Oberlin College lawsuit serves as a potent example of the need to strike a balance between free speech and responsible conduct, particularly within academic settings. The case offers valuable insights for educational institutions on understanding the consequences of actions that have a broad impact on campus communities and local businesses alike. Through this incident, all stakeholders can learn the importance of maintaining a fair, just, and ethical approach when dealing with sensitive matters involving freedom of speech, political correctness, and truth.

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