Key facts from the incident through the filing of the lawsuit.
About 5 p.m. November 9, 2016, an incident occurred at Gibson’s Bakery – located across the street from Oberlin College – involving three black students and Allyn D. Gibson, the white grandson and son of the store owners Allyn W. Gibson and David Gibson, respectively. One of the students attempted to purchase alcoholic beverages with a fake ID and later also was accused of shoplifting. (The other two students waited outside the store.) According to witnesses, Allyn D. Gibson pursued that student as he ran out of the store, ending in a physical altercation in Tappan Square involving all three students. When the police arrived, they arrested only the three students.
Witness accounts of the altercation spread quickly among students. Later that evening some students organized a demonstration for 11 a.m. November 10, in response to the physical altercation involving Allyn D. Gibson, the Oberlin police department’s response, and concerns regarding the bakery’s treatment of patrons of color. On the following day, November 11, Oberlin’s Student Senate passed a resolution critical of the bakery’s business practices and distributed it to a student body email list that the Student Senate managed.
Approximately 150-200 students took part in a lawful protest in front of the bakery. They carried signs, distributed a protest flyer and chanted. Under the College’s policies and procedures, Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo was required to be present at the demonstration to ensure it remained lawful and to act as an intermediary between the students and law enforcement authorities. Dean Raimondo monitored the event and used a bullhorn once to explain her presence and delineate where the protesters were allowed to gather. In response to a man’s request for information about the protest, Dean Raimondo handed a copy of the protest flyer that she had received from a student. The man testified during the trial that he had no reason to believe that Dean Raimondo endorsed the protest flyer. There were no arrests, physical violence or property damage at the protest. Protestors did not prevent ingress to or egress from local businesses.
The protest flyer and Student Senate resolution were created solely and entirely by students. The College and its administration had no part in the creation of these documents. The College did not participate in the distribution of either the protest flyer or the Student Senate resolution. The College did not approve, endorse, or condone the students’ speech.
The College’s reaction
To de-escalate the situation, the College suspended its daily baked goods orders for dining services with the bakery for 28 business days, after which the College resumed its order without any conditions. At all times, including now, students have been able to use “Obie Dollars” (part of the student dining plan) to shop at the bakery.
The three students
The three students were charged with felonies. In August 2017, eight months after the incident, as part of a plea deal, the students pleaded guilty to shoplifting and read a prepared statement that Allyn D. Gibson’s actions were not racially motivated.
The College’s conflict resolution efforts
The College and the City of Oberlin are intertwined. What benefits one, benefits the other. Similarly, what hurts one, hurts the other. Immediately after the incident, the College sought to rebuild trust between the students and Gibson family. Even after the Gibsons filed suit in November 2017, the College made repeated, good-faith efforts toward a resolution.
The threat to free speech
This case raises significant First Amendment concerns. The College is being held responsible for the speech of its students. Punishing a college for the independent speech of its students creates a dangerous environment that invites censorship, as colleges will have a financial interest in quelling any potentially controversial or even harmful speech of others.
President Trump has issued an executive order that would permit the withholding of federal research funds and educational grants from colleges and universities that do not protect students’ rights to express their opinions, regardless of how offensive or objectionable the institution finds those opinions to be. The impetus of this policy was to protect all speech, even that with which administrators might disagree. Ironically, colleges across the country are now expressing concern that this verdict will require them to restrict speech, in order to avoid the possibility of financial insolvency through civil liability.
The College’s efforts to improve community relationships
President Carmen Ambar took office nine months after the demonstration in November 2016. Strengthening “town-gown” relations has been one of her top priorities. In August 2018, the College introduced “Community 101,” a mandatory orientation program designed to help new students understand their responsibilities as residents of the City of Oberlin. She also has introduced a 15-week “Sustained Dialogue” program that teaches students how to discuss controversial issues with people who have opposing viewpoints.