Gibson’s Verdict Appeal Filed

On Tuesday, Oberlin College announced it would appeal the June jury verdict that sided with Gibson’s Bakery and against the College and Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo. The appeal comes after the College was denied a retrial at the county level last month.

The College currently faces a $25 million judgment after a Lorain County jury found the College and Raimondo responsible for libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress following a student-led protest against the bakery in November 2016.

To represent them at the appellate level, the College has hired a legal team that includes Washington, D.C. First Amendment attorneys Lee Levine and Seth Berlin, as well as Cleveland appellate attorneys Benjamin Sassé and Irene Keyse-Walker.

“The verdict and judgment in this case set a precedent that endangers free speech on campuses and for all Americans,” Levine said, according to a College press release. “The jury was allowed to award substantial damages for speech that is protected by the Constitution. The case should absolutely be reviewed by an appellate court.”

Lee Plakas, one of the Gibsons’ attorneys, maintained that the College’s arguments are misleading.

“Given the repeated attempts by Oberlin College to discount the jury’s verdict, their decision to appeal comes as no surprise,” Plakas said in a written statement. “But despite the college’s attempt to reframe this as a First Amendment issue, the law and the facts of this case remain clearly on the side of the Gibson family. The law and the jury’s verdict both remind our country that claimed free speech has its limits, even on a college campus.”

The College’s legal team maintained that errors made in the initial trial justify the decision to appeal.

“This case never should have gone to the jury in light of the heightened speech protections in the Ohio Constitution, and the trial court made several procedural errors during trial that led to this verdict,” Sassé said in College’s press release. “Among other things, those errors prevented jurors from hearing critical information about the original incident.”

Plakas maintained confidence that the original verdict will stand.

“The jury’s verdict sent a clear message that institutions like Oberlin College should not be permitted to bully others while hiding behind the claimed shield of free speech,” Plakas wrote. “There are no exemptions from the law of defamation — a fact we trust will be confirmed during the appeal process.”

The decision to file the Notice of Appeal was made by a Tuesday vote of the College’s Board of Trustees. In a statement emailed to the Oberlin community, Board of Trustees Chair Chris Canavan emphasized the relationship between college and town.

“The College and the town of Oberlin have been vital to one another since 1833, and we value our long-term relationships with the town’s citizens and businesses,” Canavan said. “We also have a mission to support free inquiry, allow faculty and students to ask difficult questions and to reach and express their own conclusions. The judgment in this case effectively punishes us for doing just that. In the meantime, the College will continue to focus on bridging divides in our community and pursuing academic excellence, because an intellectually vibrant Oberlin makes a difference for good in our community and in the world.”

It will likely take at least a year for the appellate court to make a ruling.