An odd case from Ohio presents a conundrum: Is it a threat to free speech? Or an indication that our zest for political correctness has reached a heretofore unprecedented zenith and that universities and others must heed these valuable lessons learned elsewhere?
It began in 2016, when an underage student from Oberlin College – a small, private institution in the suburbs of Cleveland – attempted to rob Gibson’s Bakery of a bottle of wine. The employee behind the counter, Allyn Gibson, said he saw Jonathan Aladin in the act. Gibson took out his phone camera in an effort to document it, but Aladin allegedly slapped the phone away, striking Gibson’s face.
The 19-year-old, who is black, ran from the store but was chased by Gibson. A scuffle ensued – not just between Gibson and Aladin, but between Oberlin College and the Gibson Bakery.
When police arrived, Gibson was being punched and kicked by Aladin and also by two of Aladin’s friends. Aladin and his two friends were charged.
Later, fliers were distributed on campus, detailing the bakery to be “a racist establishment” and noting that “a member of our community was assaulted by the owner of this establishment.” College officials allegedly played a role in publishing and distributing the leaflet.
Students boycotted the business. The college canceled its usual order from the bakery. An Oberlin academic department Facebook post apparently declared that the bakery’s “dislike of black people is palpable” and that its “food is rotten.”
However, police later said Gibson’s effort to restrain the student was justified. Police also noted that of 40 adults arrested for shoplifting at the bakery in the previous five years, only six were black.
The bakery then retaliated, filing a suit against Oberlin that claimed the college gave support to the protests. The family also sued Oberlin’s vice president and dean, claiming libel, slander and interference with business.
Was it a college-organized “defamation and economic boycott,” as the bakery claimed? A jury sure thought so, and awarded the bakery and its owners $11 million in compensatory damages and $33 million in punitive damages.
Many now are claiming the lawsuit and award are a blow against guaranteed free speech.
We don’t see it that way. As we have noted numerous times before, “free speech” does not mean an absence of consequences – social, financial, professional and otherwise – when we say and do offensive things.
More important to us is the lesson that should be gleaned from the Oberlin College case. While we believe the total monetary award is exorbitant, we do agree with what we assume was the jury’s rationalization: That truth is important, and that a lynch-mob mentality – fed by an overzealous quest for ultimate political correctness – can be dangerous and, in some cases, quite expensive.