Court Decision on Gibson’s Suit Threatens Student Speech

After five years of litigation, Oberlin College v. Gibsons Bros., Inc. drew to a definitive close with the College’s announcement of its intent to pay the bakery $36.59 million. With Gibson’s naturally glad to move forward from trial and the College committed to its ongoing mission of academic excellence, the only missing piece of the puzzle is how College students are feeling. At this point, no students on campus have a direct connection to the original incidents at the bakery, and even this Editorial Board finds itself distant from this critical moment in the College’s recent history. 

The fact is, however, that our disconnect from past Oberlin students’ protests doesn’t mean we’re unaffected by this litigation coming to an end. In fact, the conversation is now more pressing than ever — the upholding of the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas’ ruling sets the precedent that academic institutions are liable for the written comments of their students. According to the courts, opinions, if asserted as facts in a written form, do not fall under First Amendment protections of free speech. That means every protest, op-ed, or written assertion of any kind, if it qualifies under that definition of libel, may compromise not only the producers of the content, but the College itself. 

As a politically active community that prides itself in holding problematic actors accountable, it should worry us that academic institutions can be held responsible for students’ declarations of protest. Going forward, these institutions will be forced to protect their own legal interests above the free speech of their students. If there were previously concerns that the College wasn’t hearing student demands, we are now entering territory where the College may be legally obligated to silence those thoughts before they are even voiced. In its appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, the College’s lawyers placed significant emphasis on the dangers of this precedent to First Amendment protections, as reported in the Review last week. 

Part of the justification for holding the College responsible for Student Senate’s resolution on the Gibson’s, as stated in the 9th District Court of Appeals’ Decision, was that “Oberlin assisted the student senate in its activities by providing it with financial support; a faculty advisor, [Meredith] Raimondo; an office in the student center; and a nearby glass display case within which it could post announcements.”

Many organizations that colleges generally consider to be independent entities, including student press and government, still receive some extent of support, financial or otherwise, from their institutions. If any speech that an academic institution facilitates in any way is considered to be the responsibility of the institution, then colleges and universities will be forced to more closely control the speech of every chartered student organization. Beyond just chartered groups, this ruling also has disconcerting implications for individual speech. In the ruling against the College, the courts have affirmed that institutions are responsible not only for the speech of established organizations, but also that of individual students. The fliers were not created by a chartered student organization; rather, they were conceived by an anonymous group of students with shared aims. Their collaboration was not sponsored by the College, yet the College was found responsible for their product. 

While this Editorial Board wishes to highlight the precarious nature of expressing opinions going forward, we do not wish to create a sense of hopelessness. Given the newly set precedent that institutions can be held liable for their students’ words, it is imperative that students remain informed and ensure that we have our facts straight when we protest or disseminate literature. It goes without saying, but accuracy in both the facts and the manner in which they are presented can make or break any accusations of libel. It is important to frame those claims as disagreement in opinion, not statements of fact. Both documents held as libelous by the courts asserted that the owners of Gibson’s were “racist” and “assaulted” students. The original altercation was subject to ongoing litigation that later concluded that Allyn Gibson Jr. was not racially motivated in his actions and did not assault the students. Furthermore, he was not an owner of the bakery, and the actual owners of the bakery could not be proven to be racist. Thus, neither of these claims reflected indisputable fact in the eyes of the court. Rather, they were one of many possible perspectives on the totality of facts in the case. What is essentially a technicality in the difference between opinion and representation of fact formed the basis for a massive defamation suit.

Taking these precautions will generally protect student activists from being accused of defamation. Students will need to take steps to steer clear of College interference. As is policy with the Review, and over the course of this trial has become the case with Student Senate, it is important to clearly state which parties are represented by an opinion. If the College remains assured of legal immunity from the articles of protest, it will have no incentive nor grounds to meddle with those comments. At the same time, clear and deliberate statements of ownership encourage accountability, which will result in greater engagement and courage from potential supporters. Demonstrating clear ownership over thoroughly researched claims is the best chance we have at ensuring the effectiveness of our future activism.