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Gibson Bros, Inc. v. Oberlin College

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  1. Libel and Privacy

Amicus brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Freedom to Read Foundation, American Booksellers Association and 19 media organizations

Court: Ohio Ninth District Court of Appeals

Date Filed: June 8, 2020

Background: In 2016, students at Oberlin College, a private liberal arts school in Ohio, protested against Gibson’s Bakery after an altercation between three Black students and a white employee of the family run shop. Statements included in a student protest flyer and a Student Senate resolution accused the bakery of engaging in racial profiling and having a history of discrimination.

While monitoring the protest, Meredith Raimondo, Oberlin’s vice president and dean of students, handed one of the protest flyers to a reporter who asked about the protest. The Student Senate resolution was posted in a building on Oberlin’s campus.

In 2017, the bakery and two of its owners filed a libel lawsuit against Oberlin College and Raimondo, arguing, among other things, that they defamed the bakery by distributing the protest flyer and the Student Senate resolution. The case went to trial, and a jury found the defendants guilty of defamation based on its findings that they acted negligently, awarding the bakery and its owners a total of $44 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Oberlin College and Raimondo appealed the decision to Ohio’s Ninth District Court of Appeals.

Our Position: The appeals court should reverse the jury’s verdict. It should also clarify that the “actual malice” standard of fault applies in defamation actions against redistributors in order to ensure that defamation suits do not inhibit the First Amendment protected redistribution of speech by news outlets, booksellers, and libraries.

  • The trial court erred in instructing the jury that the defendants could be found liable on the basis of mere negligence. The appeals court should make clear that defendants who redistribute another’s speech may be held liable for defamation only if they act with actual malice.
  • Even if the appeals court applies a negligence standard, the trial record’s indication that the defendants did not act to verify the information in the flyer or Student Senate resolution is not clear and convincing evidence of negligence.

Quote: “If permitted to stand, the verdict against Defendants would impose an extraordinary and erroneous duty of care upon those who redistribute others’ speech, in conflict with Ohio law and well-established First Amendment jurisprudence. Applying a negligence standard to redistributors would chill the exercise of First Amendment rights by news organizations, booksellers, and libraries.”

Related: In April, the Reporters Committee published a blog post explaining the actual malice standard of fault through the lens of the high-profile dispute between pop music star Kesha and the producer she accused of sexual assault.