by Wyatt Camery
[originally published April 22, 2022]
In a decision deemed “stunning” in an article by David Marburger, a former libel attorney, for Cleveland.com, the 9th Ohio District Court of Appeals upheld the verdict of the lawsuit against Oberlin College which awarded $44 million (now $31.6 million) to Gibson’s Bakery. Stunning, indeed. Marburger likens the decision to “upholding a $30 million libel judgment against the lady who hawks newspapers at a Browns game, citing a derogatory story on the front page.” And rightly so, he recognizes that this case is at the heart of contemporary American culture wars, pointing to the sideline engagement such as the “Support Gibson’s Bakery” signs you have likely seen around town and the national media attention the issue has received. Surely we’re all aware of this by now. Perhaps painfully so, and I am not here to recount the details of the event or the details of the lawsuit, for that is easy enough to find plenty of material about online. I’m more concerned with the response the issue is receiving.
Look, I know we’re all probably sick of hearing about this. It’s an issue that has, other than the pandemic, cast a significant shadow on everyone’s Oberlin experience, especially third- and fourth-years, even though the event itself occurred up to three years prior to our arrival. In light of nationwide conversations about free speech, I don’t understand why we’re not talking about this. Well, I do know why: it’s embarrassing and as I said two sentences ago, we’ve heard enough of it. Ironically, that’s exactly why I’m writing about it: because no one else is, anymore.
Digging into the media response to this case, it’s alarming how divisive the rhetoric is. Everyone agrees the ultimate route to a Gibson’s victory was nuanced, but on one side, commentators feel that the sum owed does not equate to the crime and that the verdict has repercussions beyond a small town in Ohio, while others think Oberlin foolishly groveled to and aided its student over a false claim of racism. A Washington Post article uses the events as a warning to other colleges and universities, “especially liberal arts colleges where students and faculty tend to be left-leaning and protests are not uncommon,” Noah Feldman notes in his article “Colleges Should Pay Heed to Oberlin’s Costly Libel Case.” Yet, student protests at institutions of higher learning have been going on for centuries, famously picking up steam in the 1960s. Most infamously, at Kent University, just under 50 miles away from Oberlin, in May 1970, the National Guard fired rounds into a group of student protestors, tragically killing four. $31.6 million dollars is nothing compared to even a single human life. But following this event, students didn’t slink away to their dorm rooms. In fact, this event ignited nationwide protests.
We can easily use this as an opportunity to discuss the ongoing culture wars, the deepening political divide, and issues of free speech, both in the United States and here in the town of Oberlin. This work has been done plenty of times over, and I don’t think I can offer anything new regarding these issues in this brief article. Let’s be honest with ourselves: Oberlin students are easily provoked. I mean that lovingly. We’re a passionate bunch, eager to take action over any number of political issues, regularly serving as a voice for the silenced. So, regarding this sizzlingly hot button topic, why aren’t we using our voices to raise hell about it? If you’re on the Gibson’s side of the issue (hey, I make no assumptions), it’s an opportunity to criticize the administration (albeit primarily of a bygone era) and college politics culture at large, and if you side with Oberlin, this is a great opportunity to demonstrate that this case will not in fact silence free speech; and if you prefer to take a multifaceted, albeit mildly informed opinion, then you, too, can be Features Editor for the Grape. Sorry, I needed some levity here. To be clear, I’m not advocating another organized protest of Gibson’s – you can take my argument how you please. But if this is ultimately an issue about freedom of speech – forcing colleges, students and administration alike, to approach their words and actions with greater caution for fear of legal or social backlash – then the last thing we should do is be silent about it.