On the Passing of Oberlin Plaintiff David Gibson
Image courtesy of Bob Perkoski, reproduced with his kind permission.

On the Passing of Oberlin Plaintiff David Gibson

Daniel McGraw
Daniel McGraw
10 min read

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.
~Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

As a journalist, I am just passing through the lives of others, and usually not at their best moments. This is particularly true of defamation cases, when reporters, lawyers, and angry litigants are forced to intermingle at a time when each party to a dispute is accusing the other of being lousy human beings. Courts provide a regulated arena for culturally approved warfare, the purpose of which is to decide who deserves humiliation, possible ruin, and sometimes even jail. For the rest of us, this all provides voyeuristic risk-free entertainment. Typically, observers and note-takers in the galleries don’t get to know the main players well, so it’s a bit like watching a bloody sporting event untroubled by an allegiance to either team.

But last April, as I made my way into the Ohio courthouse where I would sit for the next seven weeks, I met David Gibson. Gibson was suing his longtime neighbor, Oberlin College, in a case I was covering for the website Legal Insurrection. The day after the 2016 Presidential election, he had called the police when three black Oberlin students were caught shoplifting wine from his small family business. The university campus erupted in outrage, a contract the bakery had to provide food for the university cafeteria was torn up, and Gibson’s bakery was besieged by student protests operating with the apparent complicity of college faculty and administrators. The college was accused of providing malicious support to students circulating defamatory claims that Gibson and his family were racists. These claims, the jury would subsequently conclude, were baseless. The prestigious liberal arts college was found guilty of libel, and ordered to pay close to $50 million in damages. (Both the verdict and the award are being appealed, but while the damages may be reduced, depending on what state caps permit, legal experts say the reversal of a civil case like this one is unlikely under Ohio law.)

The media didn’t pay all that much attention to the case while it was being tried, but when the verdict was announced, it went berserk. Conservative outlets crowed that it was a victory for the kind of common man elitist college radicals held in contempt, and outraged progressives seethed that free speech was being sacrificed to enable bigotry and hatred of minorities. But in their hurry to use the case as a blunt object with which to club their political enemies, neither side got it right. For Gibson and his family, meanwhile, the verdict provided hard-won vindication but also bemusement. “All Oberlin had to do,” Gibson told me in September, “was to say we weren’t racists and there would have been no trial. What I didn’t understand is that they didn’t have the civility to do so. The basic civility we all try to live by. They didn’t seem to understand that.”

David Gibson has not lived to see the end of this distressing saga. In late 2018, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and, on November 16 of this year, he passed away aged 65. At his funeral, there were no bitter condemnations of the school’s administrators. Instead, friends and family spoke fondly of his kindness, his volunteer work helping the marginalized to find jobs and addiction treatment, his unpaid service on various local boards, and how his family had been active members of the Oberlin community since the late 1800s. But Eddie Holoway, a longtime family friend and one of many African Americans who attended the service, did address the point that almost everyone else had tactfully avoided. “The environment today is where name-calling is quite popular,” he said. “Words do matter. The names put upon him weren’t very pleasant. But he wanted to see a healing point. David had made peace with this before he died … his main concern wasn’t himself, but for everyone in this town. This [lawsuit] was about damag[e to] his reputation, but all of us who knew him knew what his reputation is. He had a good heart and helped everyone he could and that was priceless.”

The assembled mourners seemed to appreciate these remarks but they made me angry on behalf of Gibson and his surviving family. Oberlin College has hired high-powered lawyers to handle the appeal, and still maintains that it is the real victim of this ugly controversy. Academics who never set foot in the courtroom insist that the case was about the right of students to freedom of speech, even though the judge had explicitly declared such arguments irrelevant. The trial was intended to determine whether or not the college had “aided and abetted” the dissemination of false and defamatory claims made about Gibson’s bakery by Oberlin students, and the jury was asked to decide if the school had promoted accusations it knew to be untrue.

Nevertheless, over the past few months, Oberlin College president Carmen Twillie Ambar has repeatedly claimed that the verdict was a disgraceful violation of First Amendment rights. “The specter of such liability could chill free speech and justify censorship,” she wrote in an op-ed published this summer. “This is especially troubling for colleges, which the law recognizes distinctively as ‘marketplaces of ideas’ where speech should have ‘breathing space’ so that ideas can be tested and thought can flourish. The First Amendment encourages us to speak up. This verdict tells us to be quiet.”

This past fall, Gibson told me that the school president’s interventions in this vein were what bothered him most. “We have never said that students don’t have the right to free speech,” he said. “Our family has had this business on the town square for more than 100 years and we have seen many protests. We have helped students through the years, even letting them use our tables and chairs on the sidewalk during this protest. But the school couldn’t even do a simple and basic thing by saying in some way that we aren’t racist. Because we weren’t and we aren’t.”

Gibson always politely declined to answer my questions about the case while the trial was ongoing. So instead we spoke about other things. He was a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University with a degree in chemistry, but returned to help run the family business in the late 1970s. From what I could tell, he didn’t do so because he longed to make cookies and sell cheap beer to college students; it was just that his family had been doing this since 1885 and he was next in line to run things, so he felt a sense of responsibility and duty.

During the trial, he was looking after his 91-year-old father, Allyn D. Gibson, and on most days, they ate lunches together from brown paper bags in the courthouse hallway (“eating at restaurants isn’t that great when you work at a restaurant,” he laughed). He spoke with pride about his son, Steven, a wildlife specialist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, whose job it is to help coordinate medical care for injured animals and return them to their natural habitat. Gibson knew who longtime forgotten Ohio novelist Sherwood Anderson was, and remembered his epic 1919 novel, Winesburg, Ohio. We could see Anderson’s house in Elyria from our seventh-floor courthouse perch. And he told me what a promising young basketball player he had been back in the early 1970s, and I told him how great I was then too.

We were both amused by how much political attention the case received in the wake of the verdict. My Twitter account had exploded with new followers, many of them sporting multiple red Xs (a protest, I later learned, against perceived anti-conservative bias across social media). I was somewhat alarmed to discover that I had become a magnet for the Alex Jones/Infowars conspiracy crowd. When I told David this, he joked that he should “hold a news conference and tell everyone how you are a liberal, socialist, Trump-hating, fake news reporter.” But we both knew that the partisan media feeding frenzy was in danger of getting out of hand.

There were occasional voices, however, who seemed to recognize that the trial had been about more than a zero-sum war of political ideologies. Last month, the veteran American journalist Ted Koppel travelled to Oberlin, a small college town of about 8,000 people located some 35 miles southwest of Cleveland, to interview the main participants for a CBS-TV news show. His most telling exchange was with college president Carmen Twillie Ambar, who hadn’t even been appointed to that position when the controversy first erupted three years ago.

KOPPEL: What is a reputation worth? You’re a very distinguished academic. What’s your reputation worth?

AMBAR: My reputation is important.

KOPPEL: It’s worth a lot, isn’t it? [Ambar nods] I mean, if your reputation was destroyed overnight, you could hardly put a price on that could you?

AMBAR: Well, I certainly believe that reputations are important, but here’s what’s also true, and it’s the jury system that we have, right? And the legal system that we have. That we go through a legal process that makes that determination. And what the institution has said is that we believe that this determination was excessive.

During the trial, David Gibson testified that he had found the trashing of his ailing father’s reputation particularly upsetting. “At that point … we didn’t know whether he was going to make it or not. He said to me that he had done everything right in his life, treated everyone equally and fairly, and that he would die being called a racist.” Juror Misty Smith told Koppel how that had affected the jury: “You just feel the heart, like the whole courtroom just went phew. Everyone I think was trying to hold back tears.” The jury did not know that David Gibson was also dying from pancreatic cancer. Oberlin College attorneys had successfully moved to have any evidence relating to David Gibson’s health excluded, lest it unduly influence the jury.

Following the verdict in June, I wrote about the case for Quillette in an attempt to explain why an anodyne shoplifting incident had blown into a vicious racial scandal, and a cultural standoff between town and gown. The community that once joined the college and its environs no longer exists. What happened to David Gibson and his family is evidence of a resentful meanness that always lurked in the background, but which polarizing cultural and political pressures have inflamed.

As I reported at the time, David Gibson testified that the school had offered to allow the bakery’s food back in the university cafeteria on two conditions: that Gibson drop the shoplifting charges, and agree to report all future instances of theft by students to the university and not the police. Gibson refused. “They didn’t want to move forward until we agreed to special treatment for students shoplifting,” he told the jury. “But I kept telling them that we have to be consistent and call the police no matter who is stealing.” Only later did he realize that the school administrators might be using the controversy to launder their own reputations. “[The school administration] had been accused of being racists by students in the previous year,” he testified, “and I think they used us to deflect from that problem they had. I believe they were using us as a target so that their racial problems with their students would go away.”

In December 2015, Oberlin College’s black student union had published a 14-page, 58-point list of demands, in which they accused the university of “anti-blackness” following four separate race-based controversies in a single year. At the end of May, the New Yorker published a long essay about Oberlin College entitled “The Big Uneasy,” examining unrest at the college, in which one student interviewee complained, “I literally am so tired of learning about Marx, when he did not include race in his discussion of the market!” When Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton on November 8, 2016, the students thought their world was ending. “Part of the inconceivable quality of the election is, I don’t know a Trump voter personally, and I can’t imagine someone voting for Trump,” an Oberlin College senior told the campus newspaper. “I don’t know how to reach across that line. I don’t even know who they are.”

When three African American students attempted to steal three bottles of wine the following day, the protests against the Gibson family’s allegedly racist decision to call the police became a vehicle for election anxiety. David Gibson knew immediately that the timing was going to bring trouble. “They’re going to be trashing us,” he told police an hour after the crime occurred. The row which ensnared the small family business was a proxy for national and college political battles in which it had no part, and over which it had no control.

During the prosecution of the three shoplifters, Oberlin’s attorney attempted to get the charges reduced from felonies to misdemeanors, a deal that required Gibson’s cooperation. Gibson was asked if he would meet with the shoplifters and speak to them about the larger issue of shoplifting and how it affects small businesses and their customers. Sure, Gibson replied, they can come to the store and I’ll show them how we work. In the end this arrangement fell through amid legal wrangling, but the students were eventually charged with misdemeanors anyway. In September, I asked Gibson why he had agreed to reduce the charges. “I’ve done this before and feel the same way as I always have,” he told me. “A felony can follow them further down the road, and I don’t want anyone to have to deal with that because of something stupid they did in college.”

This is the man Oberlin students and faculty vilified as a racist, who Oberlin College punished by cancelling his cafeteria contract, and who is now accused, even in death, of attacking free speech for attempting to clear his family name. The Gibson family aren’t racists, they were just grist to a political mill. And as I watched all this unfold in court, I was stunned by how unnecessary and senselessly destructive the whole episode had been.

About 300 people showed up for David Gibson’s funeral at the First Church of Oberlin. The church was built in the 1840s and is now one of the oldest landmarks in the town, along with the college campus and the town square where the Underground Railroad had once helped slaves from the South escape to Canada. It was at this church that Horace Greeley, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and Woodrow Wilson all addressed the Oberlin community over the years. But, aside from a few retired professors, no one from Oberlin College was there to pay their respects.


Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a freelance journalist and author in Lakewood, Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1.