Oberlin College is promising a long battle to clear its name after being ordered by an Ohio state court to pay $44 million (£35 million) to a bakery subjected to protests by staff and students over mistaken suspicions of racial discrimination.
The court ruling and punitive judgment grew out of the arrests in November 2016 of three black Oberlin students at Gibson’s Food Mart and Bakery near their campus in Oberlin, Ohio.
One the students was accused of trying to shoplift and use false identification to purchase alcohol, and all three allegedly fought with a member of the family that owns the store.
Other Oberlin students and faculty protested outside the business in the following days. College staff including the dean of students distributed flyers accusing Gibson’s of racial discrimination, and the college stopped its own purchases from the store.
Nine months later, however, the three students in the case pleaded guilty to charges of attempted theft and aggravated trespass. One of them, Jonathan Aladin, acknowledged that the store owners, who are white, had no racial motivation in their actions.
The store owners, in a lawsuit, said Oberlin’s actions caused them mental harm and forced the business to cut about half of its 10 to 12 employees.
A jury hearing the store’s complaint ordered Oberlin to pay more than $11 million in total to the business and to its owners and employees. In a penalty phase, the jury added another $33 million.
In a statement, Oberlin’s president, Carmen Twillie Ambar, who is African American, was defiant. “Let me be absolutely clear: This is not the final outcome,” she said. “This is, in fact, just one step along the way of what may turn out to be a lengthy and complex legal process. I want to assure you that none of this will sway us from our core values. It will not distract, deter or materially harm our educational mission, for today’s students or for generations to come.”
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