As a journalist, I am just passing through the lives of others, and usually not at their best moments. This is particularly true of defamation cases, when reporters, lawyers, and angry litigants are forced to intermingle at a time when each party to a dispute is accusing the other of being lousy human beings. Courts provide a regulated arena for culturally approved warfare, the purpose of which is to decide who deserves humiliation, possible ruin, and sometimes even jail. For the rest of us, this all provides voyeuristic risk-free entertainment. Typically, observers and note-takers in the galleries don’t get to know the main players well, so it’s a bit like watching a bloody sporting event untroubled by an allegiance to either team.
But last April, as I made my way into the Ohio courthouse where I would sit for the next seven weeks, I met David Gibson. Gibson was suing his longtime neighbor, Oberlin College, in a case I was covering for the website Legal Insurrection. The day after the 2016 Presidential election, he had called the police when three black Oberlin students were caught shoplifting wine from his small family business. The university campus erupted in outrage, a contract the bakery had to provide food for the university cafeteria was torn up, and Gibson’s bakery was besieged by student protests operating with the apparent complicity of college faculty and administrators. The college was accused of providing malicious support to students circulating defamatory claims that Gibson and his family were racists. These claims, the jury would subsequently conclude, were baseless. The prestigious liberal arts college was found guilty of libel, and ordered to pay close to $50 million in damages. (Both the verdict and the award are being appealed, but while the damages may be reduced, depending on what state caps permit, legal experts say the reversal of a civil case like this one is unlikely under Ohio law.)
The media didn’t pay all that much attention to the case while it was being tried, but when the verdict was announced, it went berserk. Conservative outlets crowed that it was a victory for the kind of common man elitist college radicals held in contempt, and outraged progressives seethed that free speech was being sacrificed to enable bigotry and hatred of minorities. But in their hurry to use the case as a blunt object with which to club their political enemies, neither side got it right. For Gibson and his family, meanwhile, the verdict provided hard-won vindication but also bemusement. “All Oberlin had to do,” Gibson told me in September, “was to say we weren’t racists and there would have been no trial. What I didn’t understand is that they didn’t have the civility to do so. The basic civility we all try to live by. They didn’t seem to understand that.”
David Gibson has not lived to see the end of this distressing saga. In late 2018, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and, on November 16 of this year, he passed away aged 65. At his funeral, there were no bitter condemnations of the school’s administrators. Instead, friends and family spoke fondly of his kindness, his volunteer work helping the marginalized to find jobs and addiction treatment, his unpaid service on various local boards, and how his family had been active members of the Oberlin community since the late 1800s. But Eddie Holoway, a longtime family friend and one of many African Americans who attended the service, did address the point that almost everyone else had tactfully avoided. “The environment today is where name-calling is quite popular,” he said. “Words do matter. The names put upon him weren’t very pleasant. But he wanted to see a healing point. David had made peace with this before he died … his main concern wasn’t himself, but for everyone in this town. This [lawsuit] was about damag[e to] his reputation, but all of us who knew him knew what his reputation is. He had a good heart and helped everyone he could and that was priceless.”