Oberlin College ignored the First Law of Holes responding to the jury verdict against it
Lack of respect for juries can be very, very costly. The landmark jury verdict awarding $11 million (with the possibility of triple damages to come) to members of the Gibson Family, owners of a 5-generation bakery boycotted and slandered by students with the encouragement of a College official, is looking to be as much about social class as it is about the excesses social justice warriors (SJWs). I write this, not to castigate the local folk who made up the jury and sympathized with the “townies” attacked by the “gowns” of Oberlin, but rather in recognition of what William A. Jacobson of Legal Insurrection, who owns this story, pointed out about Oberlin’s response to the verdict. It appears that Oberlin, a relatively wealthy and elite college, is so arrogant – full of hubris as Clarice Feldman pointed out yesterday – that it forgot (or never knew?) The First Law of Holes: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
Jacobson writes in part (read the whole thing):
…there is nothing more baffling than a statement sent to alumni after the verdict by Donica Thomas Varner, Oberlin College’s Vice President and General Counsel.
The statement was contained in a mass email sent to alumni (and possibly others) criticizing the jury verdict and repeating the same stale defenses that failed at trial (emphasis added):
Dear Members of the Oberlin Community:
I am writing to update you on the lawsuit that Gibson Bros., Inc. filed against Oberlin College and Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo in the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas in November 2017.
Following a trial that spanned almost a full month, the jury found for the plaintiffs earlier today.
We are disappointed with the verdict and regret that the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented.
Neither Oberlin College nor Dean Meredith Raimondo defamed a local business or its owners, and they never endorsed statements made by others. Rather, the College and Dr. Raimondo worked to ensure that students’ freedom of speech was protected and that the student demonstrations were safe and lawful, and they attempted to help the plaintiffs repair any harm caused by the student protests.
As we have stated, colleges cannot be held liable for the independent actions of their students. Institutions of higher education are obligated to protect freedom of speech on their campuses and respect their students’ decision to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights. Oberlin College acted in accordance with these obligations.
While we are disappointed with the outcome, Oberlin College wishes to thank the members of the jury for their attention and dedication during this lengthy trial. They contributed a great deal of time and effort to this case, and we appreciate their commitment.
Our team will review the jury’s verdict and determine how to move forward.
Donica Thomas Varner
Vice President, General Counsel & Secretary
Procedurally, the email is baffling because the trial is not over. The jury will hear more evidence and render a verdict on punitive damages that could add another $22 million to the $11 million compensatory. The objective of any communications at this sensitive stage must be to first do no harm. That’s how Scott Wargo, Oberlin’s spokesman, handled it when contacted by me and other media after the verdict, indicating the college had no comment on the jury verdict. Wargo’s statement was the professional response one would expect in this circumstance, so why are others at the college not heeding that basic corporate communications strategy?
Substantively, the email is infuriating to anyone who has followed the case. Oberlin College and Raimondo were not “held liable for the independent actions of their students.” Rather, the defendants were held liable for their own conduct in aiding and abetting the publication of libelous documents, interference with business, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Let me repeat, it was the college’s and Raimondo’s own conduct that was at issue before the jury. That the General Counsel of Oberlin College doesn’t understand that — even if she disagrees with the jury conclusion — tells me something went very wrong with the way this case was handled internally at Oberlin College.
The blinding, dysfunctional arrogance of Oberlin is highlighted in this language from Jacobson:
Don’t accuse the jurors of disregarding the “clear evidence,” don’t repeat the same failed claim that the college administrators were simply keeping the peace and protecting free speech when numerous witnesses testified otherwise, and don’t claim the college was held liable vicariously when in fact the college’s own conduct was at issue.
The post-verdict email could be Exhibit A at the punitive damages hearing as to why the compensatory damages are not sufficient to send a message to Oberlin College and its administrators. Whether it will be an exhibit we’ll find out on Tuesday.
The entire higher education industry is on the edge of an apocalypse. Prices have been jacked up to unsustainable levels, in large part to fund an unproductive bureaucracy, much of it devoted to “diversity,” just as a demographic decline in the age cohort eligible for college is upon them. The broader public observes the excesses on campuses from Berkeley to Oberlin, and realizes the contempt with which denizens of the ivory tower regards them. I have a hard time believing that the alumni of Oberlin College are going to open their wallets to finance the costs of this fiasco, nor do I foresee state legislatures or the federal government expanding their aid to higher education in the face of its excesses and contempt.
Image credit: Oberlin College