This week, the American Booksellers Association joined an amicus brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Gibson Bros v. Oberlin. ABA was among 21 organizations, including the Freedom to Read Foundation and the Washington Post, to join the brief in support of Oberlin College.
The Gibson Bros v. Oberlin case concerns a defamation lawsuit brought by a bakery and two employees against Oberlin and Oberlin Dean Meredith Raimondo. The bakery was the target of a student protest at Oberlin College in 2016 following an altercation between an employee and three African American Oberlin students.
After trying to buy wine with a fake ID, one of the students was chased out of the bakery and placed in a chokehold by one of the store’s employees. In the protests following the incident, Oberlin college students urged the school to cut ties with Gibson Bakery. (The bakery was a supplier to Oberlin’s cafeterias.)
In its lawsuit filed in November 2017, the bakery accused Oberlin and Dean Raimondo of defaming the bakery based on statements in a student protest flyer and a Student Senate resolution that accused the bakery of engaging in racial profiling. While overseeing the student demonstrations, Dean Raimondo handed a protest flyer to a reporter who asked about the protest. Further, the Student Senate resolution was posted in a building on Oberlin’s campus.
The case went to trial and was tried in two phases. In the first phase, the jury in part found Oberlin guilty of defamation and held that Oberlin acted negligently. The jury awarded Gibson Bakery with $11 million in compensatory damages. In the second phase, the jury awarded Gibson Bakery with $33 million in punitive damages.
Oberlin then appealed the decision to the Ohio Court of Appeals.
The amicus brief ABA joined in support of Oberlin argues that, under Ohio law, redistributors such as booksellers, libraries, and occasionally the news media may be held liable for defamation only if they act with actual malice. Further, the brief argues that even if negligence is the appropriate standard for defamation, Ohio requires clear and convincing evidence of negligence.
In the brief, the amici write, “Booksellers and libraries collect and curate books authored by writers coast to coast and make them available to the public in their communities. The news media redistributes advertisements and circulars written by individuals outside the news organization.”
“[Oberlin and Dean Raimondo] argue that they, too, were redistributing the speech at issue in this case. Accordingly, amici are concerned that the verdict in this case could set a precedent under which those who merely disseminate others’ speech risk defamation liability unless they independently verify its accuracy, even if they have no reason to doubt its veracity,” the brief states.