Oberlin Appeals Verdict that Sets Troubling Free Speech Precedent
Procedural Errors Prevented Jurors from Hearing Key Evidence
For Immediate Release October 8, 2019
OBERLIN, OHIO—Oberlin College’s Board of Trustees announced today that it voted to appeal the jury verdict that held it and the college’s Dean of Students liable for a protest organized independently by students. Attorneys representing the College filed a Notice of Appeal today appealing the case to the Ninth District Court of Appeals in Akron, Ohio.
“The decision is grounded in the board’s fiduciary responsibility to the College’s long-term financial health,” said Board Chairman Chris Canavan. Left standing, the verdict could also set a troubling precedent for those institutions, like Oberlin, that are committed to respecting free speech, he said.
The College will continue to support the Oberlin business community, Canavan said.
The College has assembled an appellate legal team to take on the many dimensions of this case, he said.
The team includes First Amendment attorneys Lee Levine and Seth Berlin from the Washington, D.C., office of the national law firm Ballard Spahr and appellate attorneys Benjamin Sassé and Irene Keyse-Walker from the Cleveland office of the national law firm Tucker Ellis. These attorneys will work with trial counsel from Taft Stettinius & Hollister of Cleveland and from Wickens Herzer Panza of Avon to address the intersection of defamation law, First Amendment principles, and Ohio tort reform doctrines this case raises.
Levine has a national reputation as a leading First Amendment attorney and, during a career that spans four decades, has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, has appeared in most federal appeals courts, and has written extensively on First Amendment and defamation law.
Berlin has represented clients in First Amendment cases for more than 25 years and has argued cases in numerous federal trial and appeals courts and in state courts across the country. He is also an Adjunct Professor of First Amendment and Media Law at Georgetown University Law Center.
“The verdict and judgment in this case set a precedent that endangers free speech on campuses and for all Americans,” Levine said. “The jury was allowed to award substantial damages for speech that is protected by the Constitution. The case should absolutely be reviewed by an appellate court.”
Ben Sassé is the chair of an Appellate & Legal Issues group with a long history of taking on state and federal cases at the appellate level. He has successfully argued cases on a broad range of issues before the Ohio Supreme Court and is a regular speaker on Ohio Supreme Court cases and practice.
Keyse-Walker has argued hundreds of state and federal appeals across the nation, with a focus on Ohio’s Supreme Court and 12 intermediate appellate courts. She was the first Ohio attorney to be elected to the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers and has written and spoken extensively on the development of an appellate practice.
“This case never should have gone to the jury in light of the heightened speech protections in the Ohio Constitution, and the trial court made several procedural errors during trial that led to this verdict. Among other things, those errors prevented jurors from hearing critical information about the original incident,” Sassé said.
On November 9, 2016, a student was accused of shoplifting and attempting to use a fake ID to purchase alcoholic beverages at Gibson’s Bakery. A member of the Gibson family confronted the student, pursued the student out of the store into nearby Tappan Square, and engaged in a physical altercation with the student, detaining him until police arrived. Two other students also got physically involved in the incident. Several students and others in the Square witnessed the altercation.
Within 18 hours, students had organized a protest. The College took steps, consistent with its protest policy, to ensure that it was peaceful and sought to de-escalate tensions in the community.
In June 2019, a Lorain County jury awarded Gibson’s Bakery and its family $44 million in connection with the lawsuit. The judge in the case has since reduced the judgment to $31.6 million.
“The College and the town of Oberlin have been vital to one another since 1833, and we value our long-term relationships with the town’s citizens and businesses,” Canavan said. “We also have a mission to support free inquiry, allow faculty and students to ask difficult questions and to reach and express their own conclusions. The judgment in this case effectively punishes us for doing just that. In the meantime, the College will continue to focus on bridging divides in our community and pursuing academic excellence, because an intellectually vibrant Oberlin makes a difference for good in our community and in the world.”
Additional information about the case and appeal process can be found here.
About Oberlin College and Conservatory
Ranked among the nation’s top liberal arts schools, Oberlin College and Conservatory is committed to academic rigor, artistic and musical excellence, and civil engagement in support of a just and equitable world. Founded in 1833, Oberlin was the first college in America to adopt a policy to admit students of color and to award degrees to women in a coed program. Oberlin’s history of academic achievement has led its forward-leaning graduates to challenge conventions and to create meaningful positive change in the world.
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Director of Media Relations