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Oberlin College President On Bakery Case


Oberlin College is in the middle of a controversy. In November 2016, Oberlin students began to boycott Gibson's, a local bakery and convenience store that's been in business in that college town for more than a century. The store accused an underage black student of shoplifting wine there. The student later admitted to stealing, but by then, protests had already taken hold.

Signs accused Gibson's Bakery of racism. Oberlin stopped doing business with them for two months. The bakery says they lost business and were forced to lay off workers. So in 2017, they sued Oberlin, claiming libel and slander, among other things. A jury agreed and awarded the bakery a total of $44 million. The college is considering whether to appeal.

Carmen Twillie Ambar is the president of Oberlin. President Ambar, thanks so much for being with us.

CARMEN TWILLIE AMBAR: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: We should note you were not president during the initial protests.

AMBAR: No, I wasn't. I arrived about 10 months later.

SIMON: What are your concerns about this judgment?

AMBAR: Really, that this is a First Amendment case about whether an institution can be held liable for the speech of its students and the actions of its students. And I think it's important, whether you're a progressive or conservative, whether you are a small business owner or a large employer - about whether you can be held responsible for the speech of people who either work for you or are part of your community. And so that's really what this case is about. And I think it's important for us to talk about it in that way, even as we can get into some of the disputed facts around this issue.

SIMON: Well, I gather the people - the family that own Gibson's makes the argument that the college actively supported the demonstrators - pizza, warm clothing - and, by canceling business with them for a couple of months, gave credence to the charges, even though, of course, as it developed in court, the young man was absolutely guilty of what was charged.

AMBAR: So I think it's interesting 'cause there are certainly disputed facts about what the college did or didn't do around the protest. You know, there may have been some individual faculty there that had their own perspective about it.

But here is what I would say to folks. The first thing to remember is that our policies require that our dean of students sort of be at the protest to make them safe and lawful. You know, ultimately, what happened was there were no arrest at the protest. There was no property damage at the protest. There was no violence at the protest. And so sometimes what people perceive as support is what you do to de-escalate a protest.

SIMON: So your position would be that your dean of students would be there, even if there were some Oberlin students who decided to have a Make America Great rally.

AMBAR: Absolutely. The content of the speech isn't relevant. And she's supposed to be a liaison to the police. And, in fact, the police contacted her staff to talk about this particular protest as it was happening. So it wouldn't matter whether they were there for a Make America Great rally or whether they were there to talk about some progressive cause. The content of the speech is not why we're there. It's there to be able to protect the community and to make it a lawful protest.

SIMON: Racism is an ugly charge. Can you see why the Gibsons were upset by it?

AMBAR: Oh, absolutely. I - absolutely. If you're called a name that you don't believe is true, then I can absolutely see why the Gibsons were upset.

SIMON: Recognizing you're in the middle of this experience, do you have any advice for other schools on how to uphold the right of any member of the student body or the faculty to express themselves without appearing that the university necessarily is signing on to it? - because, of course, there are student activists who say the university should sign on to it.

AMBAR: Well, I think - conversations that we need to have with our students around activism and to make sure that they know that even in their activism and even though some speech might be permissible, they do have to understand the impact of that speech. And that's a fair conversation to have - that, you know, speech is permissible, but it can be hurtful to people.

SIMON: President Carmen Twillie Ambar of Oberlin College. Thanks so much for being with us.

AMBAR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.