Yesterday a jury awarded $33 million in punitive damages to the owners of Gibson’s bakery, a small business adjacent to Oberlin College. That amount was on top of the $11 million in compensatory damages it awarded last week. In fact, it appears the $44 million verdict exceeds what the law allows and will have to be capped at $33 million (plus attorneys fees). Today, Oberlin College released a statement to alumni saying there is still a long way to go in this legal battle:
By now many of you will have heard about the latest development in the Gibson’s Bakery lawsuit, a jury’s declaration of punitive damages against Oberlin. Let me be absolutely clear: This is not the final outcome. This is, in fact, just one step along the way of what may turn out to be a lengthy and complex legal process. I want to assure you that none of this will sway us from our core values. It will not distract, deter, or materially harm our educational mission, for today’s students or for generations to come.
We will take the time we need to thoughtfully consider the course that is in Oberlin’s best interests. I will update the community as we make these decisions. I am confident that when we resolve this matter, it will look substantially different than it looks today.
I guess it’s fair to say that a $33 million judgment won’t “materially harm” a college that reportedly has $1 billion in assets. All the more reason to let the decision stand and not reduce the amount of the verdict.
We are disappointed in the jury’s decisions and the fragmentary and sometimes distorted public discussion of this case. But we respect the integrity of the jury, and we value our relationship with the town and region that are our home. We will learn from this lawsuit as we build a stronger relationship with our neighbors.
They could start building a stronger relationship with the neighbors by not allowing their staff members to participate in protests where the neighbors are being called racists. As I pointed out last week, all of this was over the owners of the store trying to stop a shoplifter from stealing wine. But because two of the three people involved were black and the owners are white, student protesters began protesting. Oberlin College dean of students Meredith Raimondo participated in those protests and handed out flyers accusing the bakery of being a “racist establishment.” The protesters also demanded the school cut off all business with the bakery (which the school did). Eventually, all three students involved pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and made statements in court that the incident was not racially motivated.
Over at National Review, David French argues that the size of this award, whatever it turns out to be, will be large enough to get the attention of attorneys everywhere.
The size of the jury award will create a legal market for litigation. There’s a relatively simple reason why campus free-speech codes proliferated well before there was a concerted legal counterattack — money. It takes money to sue universities, and First Amendment cases simply don’t yield eye-popping jury awards. It took the creation of large networks of nonprofit, pro-bono lawyers to turn the free-speech tide on campus.
Common-law torts are different. Plaintiffs can receive real compensation, and universities have deep pockets. In a radio interview yesterday, I compared the verdict to the kind of sound that causes prairie dogs to stand alert — suddenly, lawyers are paying attention.
Let’s hope so. Of course, this won’t prevent Social Justice Warriors from doing their thing but it should focus the minds of school administrators who suddenly realized this week that jumping on the SJW bandwagon could be very costly. Without the support of faculty, this sort of intentionally dishonest student protest won’t have the same impact.