The cost of libel at Oberlin College
Woke administrators learn an expensive lesson
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It is not racist to stop someone from shoplifting in your store. It is not racist to press criminal charges against someone attempting to shoplift in your store. It is wrong to call someone a racist for defending their business and property from theft. These are the basic conclusions from a legal case involving Gibson’s Bakery and nearby Oberlin College, a nationally known liberal arts college. When it comes to Oberlin, put the emphasis on liberal. It has to rank as one of the most woke campuses in America.
Gibson’s Bakery is a fifth-generation family-owned small business known for its delectable homemade cakes and candies in the sleepy town of Oberlin, Ohio, population 8,000. Half that population is connected to the college, either as students (3,000), or as employees (1,000). Though it costs over $80,000 per year to attend Oberlin College, there is reportedly a widespread “culture of theft” among students.
In November 2016, one young man attempted to purloin two bottles of wine while trying to buy a third using a fake ID. When the student bolted after having been found out, the store clerk ran after him and grabbed him outside. Two other students then joined the fray, and when police arrived, they found the clerk on the ground being pummeled by the three students.
The next day, a wave of protests swept over Oberlin’s campus. The three students were African American, and Gibson’s reaction to the attempted theft was attributed to the students’ race. Oberlin administrators asked that Gibson’s and other local stores embrace the college’s preferred approach to policing: no criminal charges for first-time shoplifting, but only a visit from the campus police who would inform students that a second such offense would bring criminal charges. The college blamed the protests on “Gibson bakery’s archaic chase-and-detain policy regarding suspected shoplifters.”
The college cut off its purchasing contract with the bakery for two months, the Dean of Students joined the protests, and the college paid for pizza and other amenities for the protestors. In other words, in the bakery’s view, the college associated itself with the students who were accusing it of racism in its shoplifting policy. The bakery’s owners were being defamed as racist for merely trying to protect their private property.
A jury of Ohioans agreed, finding the college libeled the bakery and awarding the bakery $44 million in punitive and compensatory damages. Those damages were eventually reduced on appeal to $25 million, plus $6 million for attorney’s fees and $4.5 million in interest. The total $36 million bill, plus its own attorney’s fees, is no doubt significant for the college, though it seems less so next to its $1 billion endowment. The Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear the college’s request for review, finalizing the result of the case.
The case offers two lessons for institutions of higher education, both of which should have been obvious anyway. First, do not coddle shoplifting students. When universities are on the leading edge of defunding the police and ending mass incarceration, we cannot be surprised that they take a lax attitude towards crime by students. But James Q. Wilson taught us long ago that a permissive attitude towards small crime just encourages more crimes, big and little. This generation of college students may feel particularly empowered, but no one is entitled to take bottles of wine from a store without paying for them. Socialism and public ownership of the means of production are topics for classroom discussions, not laws governing property theft.
Second, universities are liable when they cause injury or harm by actively assisting their students and staff in protest behavior. This is plainly true legally—they are liable in a court of law. But they are also liable to parents, alumni, and society at large when they use tuition and tax dollars to facilitate foment and fulmination by students. Universities certainly retain their own First Amendment right to speak out against the injustices they perceive in society and may want to join students in some of their battles. And America has a long history of campuses as one of the freest public squares for protest. But a deliberate action to cause harm is quite different than a protest.
When universities cross that line to actively back such protests, they have to own the results. Responsible adults in charge of billion-dollar institutions should not lightly accuse beloved small businesses of racism because their spoiled students feel entitled to shoplift scot-free.
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