‘[B]eing pissed off at the local college is not a valid legal doctrine for taking millions of dollars.’
An AAUP blogger demeans the Ohio jury in just the way the administration of Oberlin College has consistently done: The jurors are vindictive village idiots, unable to understand concepts like harm, defamation, and the rule of law, able to use the legal system only to stick it to the elitists down the block. For those who want to get rid of embarrassingly inexpert juries altogether, the lopsided outcome of the Oberlin trial ($44 million in damages and penalties to the college), in the Gibson Bakery case, is the icing on the cake.
Yet although this clearly was an angry jury, that doesn’t mean their verdict was dumb. The jury knows that Oberlin won’t in the end pay out that much money; they know that an appeal is thunderingly obvious. Appalled by the … well, let’s use the language of the AAUP blogger — a man who is sympathetic to Oberlin…
… Oberlin students behaved disgracefully, only to be exceeded by the incredibly stupid and repulsive actions and comments by Oberlin administrators. Protesters demanded a boycott over a case where the Oberlin students were clearly guilty (and later pleaded guilty) and there was no evidence of racial discrimination. They made accusations of past racism, but never presented any convincing evidence publicly. Oberlin’s administrators were even worse. They hurt Gibson’s business by refusing to stand up on their behalf and by boycotting the bakery for a time. They tried to intimidate Gibson’s into dropping charges against the Oberlin students by threatening to continue their boycott, and even asked the bakery to call the college rather than the police when students shoplifted in the future. And Oberlin’s administrators sent each other very dumb messages that alienated the judge and jury so much that the actual legal regulations about defamation [were overlooked].
Appalled by this behavior, which I suspect was felt as a personal attack on their community’s economy and reputation, the jury decided to communicate as forcefully as possible its unacceptable nature — perhaps with an eye to Oberlin eventually gaining some compassion and rationality along the way. As Bill Maher put it in lamenting Oberlin’s actions, “How do we get mainstream liberals to stand up to that faction?” One way is to jolt them awake with outrageous court awards; once awake, mainstream liberals might ask themselves why Oberlin has as a vice president and dean of students an angry factionalist, a woman way, way out of the liberal mainstream. That happened because no one’s watching. Now people are watching.
June 15th, 2019 at 11:13PM
The justification for implementation of university ‘cororate governance” was that professional managers, and their bloated staffs, would better administer higher education. We needed Vice Provosts of Student Life, and Vice Deans In Charge of Student Success, with their six figure incomes and pensions, because modern university administration demanded as much.
Well, this here blog torpedoed that nonsense. Assuming Oberlin College has acceded to corporate style uni management, little of what had been promised has been fulfilled. Instead, it’s been corruption, incompetence, and old fashioned stupidity that became manifest. Private or public, it doesn’t matter, the people running USAAmerican higher education have straight up failed. Oberlin is the latest example of such
June 16th, 2019 at 7:32AM
I think you’re being a bit unfair to Wilson. Nothing in his essay suggests that he is sympathetic to Oberlin. Rather, he believes that the statement of opinion, even if both wrong and damaging, is protected by the First Amendment. Such a view has a strong foundation in constitutional law.
I thought his hypothetical was also helpful in putting this matter in perspective. If a fundamentalist college urged students to boycott a local merchant because she had contributed to Planned Parenthood and was, therefore, a “baby killer,” I suspect most people would understand this (in my opinion) despicable behavior to be constitutionally protected.
Just because jurors aren’t rubes doesn’t make them constitutional scholars.
June 16th, 2019 at 12:29PM
But a difference exists between claiming membership in PP makes you a baby killer, and saying that you actually kill babies. One may be protected political speech, the other requires evidence that such a thing is true. No one claimed market owners belonged to racist orgs, the claim was they instituted racist policies. At the least, a renowned liberal arts college would have given a fact based argument to support such an accusation. From what I’ve read, that didn’t happen. No one needs to be a legal scholar to ask if what’s being said is true. If it is a lie, even a rube can say that’s wrong. and there are consequences with messing around with innocent people’s lives…
June 16th, 2019 at 12:53PM
I don’t really see the difference; saying that people help to finance infanticide is pretty much as bad as saying that they commit the act themselves. Does it require proof? Well, not really, because the question of whether abortion is infanticide is a matter of opinion. But so is the question of whether certain attitudes or behaviors constitute racism. As Wilson points out, had the administrators claimed that Gibson’s refuses to serve African Americans, that would move us from a statement of opinion to a (false) statement of fact, which even Wilson, I assume, would see as actionable. But they didn’t do that. People regularly disagree over what sorts of actions and behaviors are and are not racist. In a sense, the claim that Gibson’s is racist falls into the same general category as a series of Yelp reviews claiming that a restaurant’s food is terrible. Such a claim may be unfair, highly damaging to the restaurant, and shared by very few people. But it’s protected by the First Amendment. Or at least it should be.
June 16th, 2019 at 1:45PM
The difference between random anonymous Yelp stuff about food, and institutionally approved – or tolerated – or in the case of Oberlin’s dean and other administrators there, menacingly drummed up stuff (the dean threatened to “unleash the students” against a dissenting faculty member) broadcasting the moral and legal dissoluteness of a family business, seems reasonably clear. So does the severe damage done to Gibson’s.
In Jonathan Turley’s commentary on Oberlin, he argues that the verdict reflects a larger reality in which some “faculty members and officials are driving their institutions toward financial and intellectual bankruptcy, thanks to their advocacy or acquiescence… [A]cademics have caused lasting damage to their institutions by failing to stand up to, or actively supporting, extreme demands for speech codes, limits on academic freedom, and tenure changes.”
Turley agrees that “if colleges are subject to damages for protests, they could resume efforts to curtail free speech.” But he goes on to point out that “this [particular] case turned on the actions of key officials who were viewed by the jury as encouraging, if not leading, the attacks.”
Turley also notes Oberlin’s determination to brazen all of this out – a determination based, one assumes, on their total rejection of any guilt in the matter. “Even with $44 million in total damages, Raimondo remains dean of students, and the college remains unapologetic.” It will be interesting to see if, like Japanese holdout soldiers found living in forests, Oberlin curls up around itself and refuses to come out.
June 16th, 2019 at 1:54PM
Quite a bit of a difference between giving money to an organization, and actually engaging in the behavior. Simple question of facts, either I perform abortions, or I don’t. Even if I support abortions, that doesn’t mean I engage in the act. In the case of Gibson’s, either they have a policy of racial discrimination, or they don’t. They may belong to a confederate preservation society, dress up as Robert E. Lee and stage their version of The Battle of Bull Run, but that doesn’t mean they stop African Americans from shopping in their stores.
From my reading of the events, correct me if I’m wrong, Oberlin College admins took part in an organized efforts to stop Gibson’s from making a profit. This was more than just a bad Yelp review, this was a methodical attempt to deprive Gibson’s workers from making a living. Posting a Yelp review that the food is awful is quite different than saying that a place violates the civil rights of a group of people…
June 16th, 2019 at 3:42PM
I am not comfortable defending Oberlin, because it appears that athe least one of its administrators behaved disgracefully. I am, however, quite comfortable defending John Wilson’s argument. My point was not that there is no difference between a bad restaurant review and an allegation of racism. Of course there is. But both are *opinions* that, while they may cause great damage to a business, may nevertheless be protected by the First Amendment. Protecting free speech is often a nasty business since those who require protection are sometimes quite odious. By the same token, sometimes the First Amendment simply allows me to say that the soup at the local Chick and Heifer smells like an outhouse. If I were president of Oberlin, Raimondo would already be unemployed, but that’s a different matter entirely. (I should add, though, that her emailed comment about “unleash[ing] the students” sounds more like bravado than a “threat.”)
Charlie, I still think Wilson’s abortion analogy is a sound one. Whether abortion doctors are “baby killers” is, sadly, still a matter of opinion in the US, and those who finance “baby killers” are presumably complicit in the murder of babies. Regardless, I don’t believe anyone said Gibson’s had a “policy of racial discrimination.” That *might* be actionable, depending on how it was expressed. But the question of whether certain behaviors and actions are racist is a matter of opinion and a regular source of debate across the country. As Wilson suggests, we should be quite wary of juries opting to punish the expression of opinion, however obnoxious and harmful that opinion may be.
June 16th, 2019 at 4:16PM
TAFKAU: I take your point; it’s the reason plenty of legal scholars are alarmed by the verdict. Where we differ is my sense, from what I’ve read of what seems to have happened, that official Oberlin people moved from the expression of opinion to defamation. Again, Turley:
‘Much of the harm to the bakery was caused by massive protests at the college. Students and faculty seemed uninterested in the findings of the police or the views of the bakery. However, such protests are protected by free speech. The problem was the role of the college in fueling such protests. The complaint portrayed the university as an aider and abetter in such defamatory statements.’
Whether certain behaviors are racist is not always a matter of opinion; Gibson’s brilliantly and systematically demonstrated, through the use of witnesses, statistics, etc. that it is, convincingly, not racist. Now I’d be willing to guess that Dean Raimondo believes that all white people by virtue of their whiteness are racists; I’m pretty sure she lives in a world where you can brutalize any person or enterprise you’d like by telling everyone they’re racists. Andrea Dworkin believed all men by virtue of being men were rapists. Etc. I suppose some people might call these opinions. What they are is fucking nuts.