Attempted theft by Chicago woman at heart of precedent-setting ruling against college for libelous charges of racism
An attempted theft in 2016 by a Chicago woman while attending a top-tier liberal arts college in Ohio on scholarship led to a multi-million dollar legal award last Friday that, as one conservative legal scholar wrote, “sent shock waves through the academic higher education establishment.”
“The case represents an important moment — the moment when the American legal establishment learned that it can potentially impose steep costs on institutions that participate in the kind of cruel, malicious, and vicious mob tactics that have become an all-too-familiar part of the American political landscape,” wrote David French of National Review.
In the case, Endia Lawrence, a 2015 graduate of Josephinum Academy in the Wicker Park section of Chicago, was arrested with two other Oberlin College students on Nov. 9, 2016, for attempting to steal wine from Gibson’s Food Mart and Bakery, which has been serving the city of Oberlin for 100 years. All three students are black.
The arrests led to charges of racism in the form of student protests. Oberlin College supported the students, even encouraging an economic boycott of the business.
In August 2017, Jonathan Aladin, one of the three, pled guilty to attempted theft, aggravated trespass and underage consumption. Lawrence and Cecilia Whettstone, the third member of the group, pled guilty to attempted theft and aggravated trespass.
A year after the arrests, Gibson’s filed a lawsuit against the school and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo for spreading false charges of racism about the business and for engaging in economic reprisals based on the fabrications; the school cut off its business with the bakery.
The lawsuit stated that the Oberlin Police Department investigated the charges of racism against the business and found a “complete lack of any evidence.” Over the past five years, the Oberlin Police Department identified 40 adults who had been arrested for stealing from the bakery, only six of whom were black.
The jury ruled the charges of racism by the college were libelous, and awarded the Gibson family and their business a total of $11 million in compensatory damages.
Yesterday, a judge denied the college’s request to declare a mistrial. The punitive phase of the case was scheduled to move forward today – the award could go much higher.
“The First Amendment rightly provides speakers — even the most hostile and malicious speakers — with a considerable amount of protection from legal punishment,” French wrote. “But that protection has always had limits, and those limits are rightly stronger when the target of the attack isn’t a public figure such as a celebrity, politician, or journalist. Given the extent to which online mob behavior so often depends upon a combination of malicious falsehoods and attempted economic reprisals, many incidents immediately implicate the common law.”
Oberlin College did not respond to a request for comment on the case and on Lawrence. The group that awarded Lawrence the scholarship, the New York-based Posse Foundation, did not respond to a request for comment.