Sunday, June 16, 2019

On the Oberlin Verdict

You might have seen the news that a bakery won a $44 million dollar judgment ($11 million in compensatory damages, plus $33 million in punitive damages) against Oberlin College (under Ohio law, the punitive damages are capped at $22 million, so that will likely be reduced).

The short background is this: An Oberlin student tried to buy alcohol at the bakery with a fake ID. The ID was rejected, and he tried to leave with the bottle anyway. A store employee gave chase, a scuffle ensued, and the student and two friends (all who were Black) were arrested. Many on campus believed the incident was one of racial profiling, and protests by Oberlin students against the bakery quickly ensued. The bakery was labeled a "racist" institution, and the college briefly suspended its contracts with the bakery.

Ultimately, the students plead guilty to a crime; and follow-up investigations suggested that there was no pattern of profiling by the bakery.

Under these facts, it seems pretty clear that the bakery was treated poorly by the Oberlin community. That said, a damage reward of this magnitude poses a massive threat to free speech on campus -- a concern that many of those crowing over the verdict seem worryingly unconcerned about.

The evidence that Oberlin, as an institution, was responsible for the allegedly libelous statements by the students (and we should wonder whether claims of racism--an evaluative opinion--can qualify as libelous, though in context it's arguable that here it was an opinion based on undisclosed facts) is quite thin. Not non-existent, but thin. The administration let students use the copiers. They didn't censor the student government (an independent body) which issued a condemnation of the bakery. Administrators were "present" at the protests and didn't try to shut them down. One reportedly helped pass out fliers, and then wrote a remarkably bratty message considering "sic[cing] the students" on a dissenting professor before deciding that the college needed to "put the matter behind us."

Some of this -- like the "sic" message -- is genuinely bad behavior. Some of it is the college not proactively censoring its students. None of it comes close to justifying an eight-figure damage verdict.

But if the idea is that this verdict "sends a message" to colleges, what is the message they're likely to receive? Put differently, what is the compliance takeaway here, if you're a college administrator?

Here's a hint: it isn't "don't libel local businesses". It's "don't do anything -- whether in the form of action or inaction -- which could even hint at tolerating speech that the most hostile possible jury could consider to be libelous towards a sympathetic plaintiff." The latter is quite different from the former.

One thing I've learned from spending some time in "free speech" oriented social movements is that free speech has a lot of fair-weather friends. There are some principled actors. There are many more whose avowed commitment to free speech is in fact wholly one-sided, and in fact are eagerly insistent that colleges and universities in particular act against student or faculty speech that they dislike. They want faculty to be fired and students to be punished, suspended, or expelled; they want their clubs defunded and their newspapers pulled from the shelves; they harbor a deep populist resentment towards the entire modern educational system which yearns for an outlet.

That doesn't describe everyone, but it describes enough potential jurors that -- when tens of millions of dollars are on the line -- colleges are pretty much going to be forced to accommodate them. All the more so in communities where town-gown relations are frayed. I've heard that was already true in Oberlin. Certainly, the decision by a local judge to disallow the students what seemed to be a perfectly normal plea deal because doing so would supposedly validate the student protests -- something that I've mostly seen to underscore the community "standing up" to campus bullies -- to me instead underlines a deep-felt hostility and antipathy towards Oberlin, a desire to show those snooty hippies what's what.

(Likewise, if my alma mater of Carleton College -- which in many ways has a similar profile to Oberlin as a rural, highly-ranked national school with a liberal student body, an elite reputation, and iffy town-gown relations -- got sued by a local business, I imagine any trial attorney they'd hire would try to do anything and everything to keep the case away from a local jury).

And when you're trying to comply with that juror in mind, the need not to just avoid bad actions, but also avoid anything that the most negative possible factfinder could stretch to interpret as bad, ends up encompassing a lot of wholly innocent (or even laudatory) conduct. For example, having administrators observe student protests without interceding might seem to be a responsible, mature decision -- unless a hostile jury views it as a tacit endorsement and wonders why the administrators didn't try to proactively tamp down on the student speech. Which, in many circumstances, would itself be a free speech violation -- a fact which in turn emphasizes the impossible situation colleges will find themselves in.

Or another: in a bid to reduce tensions, Oberlin tried to cut a deal with the bakery where it wouldn't push to criminally prosecute first-time shoplifters. The bakery refused, saying shoplifting was a major source of lost revenue. They had every right to give this answer, but again, I've seen Oberlin's gesture interpreted in the most hostile possible light -- as granting all of its students a "get out of shoplifting free" card -- as if nobody had ever heard of alternatives to prosecution for first-time, low-level, non-violent offenses (let's not forgot the other side of the coin of bringing the full hammer of criminal law down upon every single shoplifting case).

I actually suspect that at least some, if not all, of the verdict won't survive an appeal. The damages are just so wildly out of sync with the college-qua-college's bad conduct, and the line between what the college did and the alleged libel so attenuated, that it seems very vulnerable. Plus, the conservative lawyers who've been backing the bakers have already got their headline, so I think they'll be more amenable to settlement than they had been before.

All of this is fully recognizing that the bakery was -- again, to reiterate -- treated poorly by the Oberlin community. The sort of conduct that many Oberlin students engaged in isn't just righteous anger or blowing off steam -- it hurts real people and impacts their real livelihood. But this verdict isn't about making a wronged bakery whole. It's a shot across the bow at institutes of higher education which many people simply loathe -- loathe for censoring speech and loathe for tolerating it, loathe for strangling student freedom and loathe for letting students run wild, loathe for their liberal uniformity and loathe for their diverse students bodies, loathe for thinking they're special and loathe for not making their specialness sufficiently accessible. That sort of loathing isn't healthy. And when it can get its hands on massive tort verdicts, it's positively dangerous.

No comments: