Oberlin College owes Gibson's bakery $36M in defamation case, so why won't it also say 'sorry'?

Oberlin alumni should urge college leadership to apologize to the Gibson family

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The six-year financial and reputational death march suffered by Gibson’s Bakery at the hands of Oberlin College and its students has finally come to an end. 

On Sept. 8, following the Ohio Supreme Court’s refusal to hear Oberlin’s appeal of the largest defamation judgment in Ohio history, the college issued a statement promising to pay the $36.59 million judgment, including interest. It’s fair to assume that Oberlin’s other costs, including uninsured attorneys’ fees, probably amounted to $6 million to $10 million more.   

This ordeal started on Nov. 9, 2016, when an Oberlin sophomore, who is Black, attempted to shoplift two bottles of wine and use a false ID to purchase alcohol at Gibson’s Bakery, located across the street from the college in Oberlin, Ohio. When he tried to flee, the grandson of the co-owner, who is White, tried to stop him and was beaten by him and two other Black Oberlin students who came to his aid. All three were arrested and later pled guilty.  

A pedestrian passes Gibson's Bakery in Oberlin, Ohio, on Nov. 22, 2017.

A pedestrian passes Gibson's Bakery in Oberlin, Ohio, on Nov. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)

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The day after the incident, however, the Oberlin student body, aided and abetted by the college leadership, commenced a boycott of the bakery, claiming (but never proving) that it racially profiled the students involved and was an historically racist institution. When asked to provide "specifics" about this alleged "racist history," Carmen Twillie Ambar, Oberlin’s president, replied that they were the "lived experience" of many students.

It’s well past time that Oberlin alumni came together to petition Ambar and her board to issue a formal apology to the Gibson family.   

The bakery’s revenues subsequently plummeted and, in 2019, after the college refused to absolve the bakery, it sued for defamation. 

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In its statement, the college promised to pay the $35.59 million judgment, including damages and accumulated interest. Oberlin noted that it values "our relationship with the City of Oberlin" and looks forward to "continuing our support of and partnership with local businesses…." Conspicuously absent from this missive was any form of a mea culpa directed to Gibson’s Bakery and the Gibson family, the victim of Oberlin’s defamatory action.

A student rides a bicycle on the campus of Oberlin College in Ohio, March 5, 2013.

A student rides a bicycle on the campus of Oberlin College in Ohio, March 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

What should have been a teachable moment in 2016 – that college students are obligated to determine the facts before embarking on a course that would likely devastate an innocent family business – is now more relevant than ever. 

Liability and the absence of a discriminatory past on the bakery’s part are now both legally undisputed, so it prompts the question: where are the adults among the Oberlin faculty and alumni? Having wasted about $40 million in an effort to prove what was a fatally flawed legal case from the outset, it’s well past time that Oberlin alumni came together to petition Ambar and her board to issue a formal apology to the Gibson family.   

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Oberlin’s past faculty and leadership saw this need some time ago. Former Oberlin President Frederick Starr has urged the Oberlin leadership to "[A]pologize to the Gibson family and to the community and take steps to show you mean it." Roger Copeland, a former professor of theater at Oberlin, eloquently wrote that "the time has come... to apologize to the Gibson family for damaging not only their livelihood but something more precious and difficult to restore – their reputation and good standing in the community."  

But if Oberlin students and alumni ever do understand the college’s moral obligation to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of the Gibsons and the community, it has to start with an apology. 

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE. BY THOMAS M. BOYD