The Ohio supreme court on Tuesday refused to hear Oberlin College’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling requiring the college to pay $36 million in damages to a local bakery after the college accused the business owners of being racist.
The court ruled 4–3, along ideological lines, not to review Oberlin College’s appeal on the ruling. The court did not issue additional comments. The court had previously ruled that Oberlin doesn’t have to pay the damages until the appeals were finished.
The lower court ruling found that in 2016, Gibson’s Bakery, a local business founded in 1885, was defamed by Oberlin College after a shoplifting incident involving three black students.
In the shoplifting incident, the clerk at the store refused to sell wine to a black student who had a fake I.D. When the clerk inspected further, he saw that the student was attempting to take more bottles without paying. The shoplifting confrontation transpired into physical confrontation between the three students and the clerk.
The three black students eventually pled guilty to theft, but before their admission, students begun protesting at Oberlin, accusing the bakery of discrimination.
The lower court ruled that Oberlin defamed the bakery by not putting a stop to the protests. A school administrator had instead helped hand out flyers and the school Senate was allowed to issue a statement saying, “a Black student was chased and assaulted at Gibson’s after being accused of stealing… Gibson’s has a history of racial profiling and discriminatory treatment of students and residents alike.”
Oberlin has tried to appeal the ruling several times, bringing it up all the way to the state’s supreme court while arguing that “numerous errors” occurred during the first trial.
The college has also argued it was protecting the students’ First-Amendment rights by letting them protest.
“In its filing, the College argues that numerous errors occurred during trial that prevented the jury from hearing key facts surrounding the November 2016 incident involving three students and a member of the Gibson family, and the student protests following that incident. Those significant errors deprived Oberlin of a fair trial,” the college said in a statement.
Following the supreme court’s decision, the Gibson family and the trial team stated, “Oberlin tried to frame this case with claims and issues that weren’t on trial. This has never been a case about a student’s first amendment rights. Individuals’ reputations should never be sacrificed at a false altar of free speech. The Gibsons and the entire State of Ohio should appreciate that the jury, a unanimous Ninth District Court of Appeals, and a majority of the Justices on the Ohio Supreme Court recognized that the deplorable conduct of Oberlin College could not be camouflaged by misleading claims of free speech.”