The First Amendment to our Constitution grants us the right of free speech. As has been proved in our courts, that does not necessarily include freedom from punishment for the harm caused to others when we speak, or write, erroneously about others. We all have the responsibility to ensure our communications are totally accurate.

The most recent example to make the front pages of the newspapers was the jury’s decision in the case of Gibson’s Bakery versus Oberlin College. Reportedly, the jury found Oberlin College guilty of libel for defamation, infliction of intentional emotional distress and intentional interference in business relationships.

The case stems from the November 2016 arrest of three Oberlin College students. One of those students attempted to purchase wine using a fake ID. The bakery clerk reportedly detained him. The other two students were also arrested and accused of misdemeanor assault.

According to the local newspaper, the Chronical-Telegram of Elyria, Ohio, the lawsuit said that following this incident, the Oberlin College staff tried to discredit the bakery. It is reported the staff, including deans and professors, and students held demonstrations in front of the bakery.

During those demonstrations, the owners were accused of being racists. The flyer reportedly stated “This is a RACIST establishment with a Long Account of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.” The flyer also identified other local bakeries and urged customers to shop there.

Members of the college administration, including the vice president and dean of students, who was also being sued for her actions in the incidents, indicated they were only working to ensure the students’ right to free speech was protected. Naturally, she denied having any control over the student and faculty demonstrators, even though she was there with a bullhorn informing the demonstrators where they could get college-provided refreshments as well as providing a copy of the flyer to the local press.

In fact, the jury indicated that the speech was not free and in fact found that Oberlin College should pay $11 million dollars for defamation, emotional distress and interference in business relationships. Certainly, to me, that doesn’t seem free.

One of the questions this raises to me is what action is the college taking to fully educate the students, faculty and staff concerning free speech. This seems to be another case of creating a racial issue when that was never an issue except in the eyes of others. The individual involved reportedly indicated it was not racial when he pleaded guilty.

Who dreamed this up and made it about race? Did the two women involved claim it was race or sexism? Where were the faculty members, who supposedly are educated, who participated in this sham and failed to get the facts and help educate the demonstrators? More important, are they still employed by the college or have they been fired for their failure to examine the facts?

Free speech is a slippery slope. First and foremost, is it free from responsibility? Everyone must fully understand they are responsible for what they say, write, text or send as messages. If those communications are shared publicly and defame another person, you could and should be held responsible for your actions.

Too many people seem to think freedom of speech allows you to say whatever you think without possible consequences. When what you communicate is shared with the public, or other third parties, those harmed by your comments could sue you. Calling someone a racist, a homophobe, a sexist or a bigot, when those thoughts are publicly shared with others, is not necessarily by and of itself protected as free speech. If you identify someone by those terms that cause harm to the individual, you may well be called into court to justify those allegations. If your comments are not provable, you may well be found guilty of libel or slander.

Are politicians, celebrities and other public figures protected when they utter or communicate offensive and untrue comments about another public figure? Many recent comments by national politicians concerning their opponents seem to fall under the possibility of libel or slander. Politicians, celebrities and other public figures need to be held to the same standard as Oberlin College and its staff. I do not care if your name is Bernie, or Donald, or Joe, or Nancy or Chuck, calling your opponent a racist, a bigot, a sexist, a homophobe, a liar and other such remarks could, and should, if found guilty, result in millions of dollars in fines. Maybe their campaigns can afford the additional fines leveled against them and the national political party they represent.

The real bottom line is we, the voter, have what they really want! When politicians make those unfounded comments, we need NOT give them what they want most: OUR VOTE!

Citizen Columnist Thomas J. Sheehy retired from the U.S. Army following 26 years on active duty. He and his wife of 47 years moved to Florence in 2009. They have two sons and four wonderful grandchildren. Contact Sheehy at