The Real Cost of Campus Hysteria

Ohio jury awards local business over $33 million after false targeting by outraged college students.

In the 1994 satirical comedy PCU, mobs of angry students run down and protest anyone who offends their cause célèbre at the fictional Port Chester University. Way ahead of its time, the film starring Jeremy Piven and David Spade lampooned the burgeoning movement of “political correctness” on college campuses. Today, we might call these PC warriors “Social Justice Warriors”, or SJWs.

While it’s funny to watch angry mobs of college students chase a hapless pre-frosh through campus in a movie, it’s not so hilarious for the real victims of campus activism. Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio recently learned this lesson the hard way after a jury awarded $44 million to  Gibson’s Food Market and Bakery after students and faculty wrongly targeted them for a protest campaign.

In 2016, the store owner’s son, Allyn Gibson, confronted a student he believed was trying to purchase one bottle of wine with a fake ID and steal two bottles stuffed under his shirt. The student ran from the store and Gibson chased after him. Outside, the report alleged, several more students joined the confrontation and physically assaulted Gibson before fleeing the scene. Three students eventually plead guilty to misdemeanors of aggravated trespassing and attempted theft.

Each student was ordered to pay $334 in restitution for Gibson’s hospital bill. They also read statements in court saying Allyn Gibson’s actions weren’t racially motivated, because all three are African American and Gibson is white.

It should have ended there, but with the aid of university officials, campus activists distributed flyers alleging Gibson and his family were racists and that their store should be boycotted. Oberlin Vice President Meredith Raimondo even temporarily terminated the college’s contract with the bakery. This led to a substantial loss of business and the Gibsons filed a lawsuit in 2017.

Just like President Ms. Garcia-Thompson in PCU, a buzzword-spewing enforcer obsessed with sensitivity awareness, diversity, and encouraging student grievances, college administrators at Oberlin actively encouraged their students’ misplaced grievances (at least according to this lawsuit and the jury who awarded substantial damages).

Campus activists thought they were fighting injustice and “speaking truth to power,” but their actions ultimately backfired. A state cap on punitive damages means Oberlin College will only have to pay out $33 million at most, and maybe less after all litigation is said and done. But Oberlin also suffered incalculable damage to its reputation by having faculty members actively encourage their students’ misguided behavior.

Let me be clear. There’s nothing wrong with fighting actual injustice. But the injustice in this case was entirely imagined. Allyn Gibson and his family were the real victims, first of a physical assault and attempted robbery, then of a campaign of harassment and intimidation based on bogus claims.

Hopefully, this case will demonstrate the danger of constantly promoting a sense of fear and victimhood. Young people are passionate and want to get involved to solve problems. They want to “do something”. I’ve written about my own days in the Green Party at my alma mater and our protests against the Iraq War. I get it.

But young people also need to learn there is a time and a place for outrage and activism, and there is a difference between productive and unproductive behavior. Rather than adding fuel to the fire, Oberlin’s faculty should have guided their students’ frustration toward activities that would promote understanding over division. They failed in their basic calling as educators and mentors, and their college will pay a hefty price.

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