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With a Huge Punitive Damage Award, the Oberlin Verdict Becomes Even More Meaningful

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Yesterday, the jury in the Oberlin College defamation trial delivered the school a staggering blow — awarding the plaintiffs $33 million in punitive damages after last week handing down an $11 million verdict for the college’s role in a defamatory campaign against a small Ohio bakery. The total damage award is so large that it may exceed state-law limits. But make no mistake, even if the award is reduced to, say, a “mere” $25 million, this case is profoundly important.

In a piece earlier this week, I focused on the legal importance of the case. The plaintiffs lawyers used longstanding common-law causes of action to attack Oberlin, causes of action that have long existed alongside the First Amendment and provide protection for the economic relationships and public reputation of (especially) private citizens. Given the prevalence of malice and falsehood in modern outrage mobs, the culture was ripe for a case like the Oberlin trial, and the plaintiff’s attorneys have drawn the blueprints for copycat litigation.

But let’s turn for a moment from the legal import of the case to its practical........

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