Media Coverage of Gibson’s Verdict Misses the Mark

Editor’s note: Due to the scope of national media attention, the Review took the extraordinary step of covering the Gibson’s verdict outside of normal publication dates. Because of limited staff capacity, the Review does not moderate comments during the summer, and letters to the editors in response to any article will be reviewed for publication in the fall. Please direct any questions to [email protected].

Earlier this month, a jury awarded Gibson’s Bakery $11 million following a month-long trial stemming from the bakery’s lawsuit against Oberlin College and Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo. Then, last Thursday, it added $33 million in punitive damages. This stunning decision — which strikes a serious blow against free speech on college campuses across the country — has garnered significant attention in major media outlets such as CNN and The New York Times, as well as on social media and various personal blogs.

The tension between the College and Gibson’s began in November 2016, when three Black students were involved in a physical altercation outside of Gibson’s after Allyn Gibson, son of store owner David Gibson, accused one of the students of shoplifting. The three students were arrested. Shortly thereafter, Oberlin students alleged that Allyn had racially profiled the students and launched a protest and boycott of the bakery. A year later, Gibson’s sued, alleging that the College and Raimondo had participated in smearing its reputation.

Unfortunately, much of the coverage and commentary has either inaccurately represented the lawsuit and the events that led up to it, or has only presented parts of the larger story. An extensive timeline of events is outlined in a recent Review article covering news of the verdict (“Jury Rules for Gibson’s, Assigns $44 Million in Damages,” June 14, 2019). Readers looking for more background on the verdict should consult that article.

As stories about the verdict transition from breaking news coverage to think pieces about the impact of the jury’s decision, the Editorial Board wants to identify three of the key ways that existing coverage has skewed or misrepresented events leading up to the trial.

The first concerns the Oberlin Police Department report that was filed following the initial altercation outside Gibson’s in November 2016. The document filed by responding officers was wildly prejudiced in favor of Gibson’s, as it only included statements from owner David Gibson, his son Allyn Gibson, and a Gibson’s employee. David and the employee both backed up Allyn’s version of events, giving them near-complete control of the narrative in the report and, consequently, in the media.

Noticeably absent from the police report was the perspective of any of the three Black students involved in the initial incident, not to mention the witnesses who originally called police out of concern for the students’ safety or who saw the altercation. Officers did include the line, “It should be noted that as the reporting officer was interviewing all three subjects several other individuals who were also on scene at the time of the incident and who were initially interfering with officers attempting to gain control of the situation, began stating that Allyn was the aggressor and the black man didn’t do anything wrong.” This is the only suggestion in the entire report that anything took place outside of the Gibson’s’ version of events.

This omission is meaningful — particularly in a country with a long and shameful history of manipulating testimony and evidence to criminalize people of color, especially Black people. That report defined the narrative that, from the beginning, was parroted by mainstream outlets and right-wing blogs alike to vilify the three Black students and those who came to their defense. By immediately assuming the students’ guilt, the report significantly impacted the way this story is discussed in the public sphere — even today.

Second, many people have bought into the narrative presented in court by Gibson’s’ attorneys that the College acted as a ‘Goliath’ in encouraging students to crush a small, locally-owned family business. While it’s true that the College is often not the most considerate neighbor, in this situation the accusation is entirely contrived, and the support that it has found not just from personal blogs, but major media outlets as well, is misleading.

Former Student Senate Chair Kameron Dunbar, OC ’19, put it best in a recent New York Times article when he said, “Part of the narrative that has been built up is that Oberlin’s administration weaponized students against Gibson’s out of malice. I find that concept to be pretty insulting. We’re autonomous” (“Oberlin Helped Students Defame a Bakery, a Jury Says. The Punishment: $33 Million,” June 14, 2019).

Whatever you think of the protests and boycott of Gibson’s, the responsibility for them lies squarely with students. Nobody at Oberlin — student, administrator, or otherwise — has ever contested this fact and, indeed, students continue to openly take ownership of their actions. On campus, the idea that administrators could somehow orchestrate a student protest is laughable; Oberlin students prize their independence above nearly all else. If anything, students at the time felt that administrators were dragging their feet — especially after it was announced that the College would resume its contract with Gibson’s in early 2017.

In this context, the narrative of the ‘Goliath’ college egging on its students completely deteriorates. It’s true that Raimondo was at the protests, but she was simply attempting to ensure the safety of all involved — as dictated within the responsibilities of her job. Any other framing is incomplete, and we urge both journalists and readers to critically evaluate the facts of the College’s involvement.

Finally, many journalists and commentators — although not all — appear to believe that the salient question at hand is whether the three students involved in the initial altercation were actually guilty of shoplifting, or if students were right to protest the bakery and characterize that incident as racial profiling. Many outlets have even used the names of the three students in their coverage of the trial — an irresponsible decision given that the three students were not parties to the lawsuit and have nothing to do with the legal questions at hand.

We encourage readers and journalists to reject this framing of the story. The core question of the trial was whether Oberlin College and its dean of students are on the hook for statements made by their students. The chilling answer from the jury was a resounding yes. That decision should broadly concern everybody who believes in freedom of speech and student autonomy.

Throughout the trial, the Gibsons maintained that the College should have stepped in on the bakery’s behalf; the College’s argument was that administrators could only try to maintain the safety of all parties involved, and that any attempt to dictate student speech would be blatantly outside the scope of responsible leadership.

The jury sided with the Gibsons — a decision with profoundly disturbing implications for free speech at Oberlin and on college campuses across an increasingly authoritarian country. Conservative commentators often talk about a supposed crisis of free speech on campuses, wherein students wield the sword of political correctness to silence dissenting opinions. To the contrary, this verdict is a real warning shot against free speech. The fact that those same commentators have widely lauded the verdict reveals their hypocrisy and lays their thinly-veiled agenda bare.

Ultimately, we believe that the story of the verdict should be discussed out in the open, because the jury’s decision — as it stands — sets a concerning precedent that must be challenged. However, these discussions must take place with the full picture in mind, otherwise they won’t get anywhere useful. This piece is a starting point for expanding those conversations, but it is by no means the end.

In this difficult moment, we hope that Oberlin students are not discouraged from continuing the kind of sustained and brave activism that emerged following the initial November 2016 incident at Gibson’s. We hope that students continue to validate and support the experiences of their peers, even as some silence them and others attempt to force their institution to do the same. We also hope that students continue the good work of building relationships with community members, and that tension arising from the verdict does not impact the many positive, symbiotic partnerships that exist between students and the broader community.

And, in the very near term, we hope that the College will appeal the jury’s verdict and continue to fight for the right of its students — and the rights of students across the country — to identify injustice and speak out firmly against it.