On Oberlin's campus. Photo: Getty

A high-profile dispute between Oberlin College and a local bakery over accusations of racial profiling and libel is emerging as a microcosm of a larger national debate over how political polarization is upending the country.

The backdrop: In 2016, a black student was caught shoplifting from Gibson's Bakery, after which the bakery owner's son, who is white, reportedly put the student in a chokehold. That sparked protests in the small town.

  • Students gathered outside the shop to demonstrate against what they called a history of racism and racial profiling at Gibson's.
  • Then Gibson's sued Oberlin, claiming that the college defamed the shopkeepers and disrupted business.
  • As a result, the jury ruled that Oberlin owes Gibson's $44 million in damages. On Friday, a judge lowered it to $25 million.

Why it matters: Oberlin College president Carmen Ambar said the bakery would likely suffer a couple million dollars of damage over a few decades, and she questioned whether the steep penalty was reasonable.

  • But the issues at stake are much deeper.
  • This small-town conflict between students and local residents is a crystallization of national debates around race relations and the limits of free speech.
  • Those on the right are viewing the court's decision as "everything that's right with the country," and those on the left see it as "everything that's wrong with the country," Ambar said.

Ambar said a decision whether to appeal has not been made.

Neither the Gibsons nor Lee Plakas, their lawyer, returned calls seeking comment.

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