ROXBURY – The high school librarian in this Morris County town apparently has had enough of some residents complaining about books.
So, she’s suing them for defamation, claiming, among other things, that she has been labeled a “child predator” who is “luring children with sexually explicit materials.”
It’s no surprise the national debate over books in public schools has prompted litigation. This case, however, appears to be as much about freedom of speech as it is what books kids read.
The librarian is Roxana M. Russo Caivano, who has worked at the library since 2010.
The defendants are four township residents – Thomas Seretis, Christina Scarbrough Balestriere, Kristin Cobo and Catrina Albo.
Some of the defendants are active with a website devoted to publicizing school material they deem overly sexual and not fit for students.
“Pornography, obscenity, pervasively vulgar. Regardless of how you describe them, there are books in Roxbury Public High School that are not age or school appropriate,” is what the website – Roxbury Parental Rights in Education – says.
Of course, one response to this could be a simple one – parents who don’t like some of the books in the library can make sure their children do not read them.
But things here are not that simple.
Librarian Caivano claims in the suit that the defendants’ activity has gone beyond merely criticizing the books. Instead, the suit says that the defendants have used social media, appearances at school board meetings and other interactions to label the librarian a “child abuser” and one who endangers the welfare of children.
This, the suit declares, amounts to “libel and slander per se,” given the fact Caivano is a “private person.”
That verbiage is far from a throw-away line. Private individuals have much greater legal protection against public attacks than do public officials.
Some, however, may consider a high school librarian a “public figure,” given her position with a public entity – the township board of education. Then again, she can not be confused with, say, the superintendent of schools or board members.
Still, do not be surprised if this issue pops up as the case evolves.
What definitely will pop up is the argument that the defendants are merely exercising the right of free speech.
Corinne Mullen, the defendants’ lawyer, issued a statement. Here’s part of what it said:
“Why would a librarian sue parents over an issue that should be openly debated in the public domain and in the public forum of a BOE meeting? Seeking to silence parents is at odds with our rights to act as citizens in an informed democracy.”
The statement also noted the obvious – this is an issue raging across the nation right now.
And it is one that clearly breaks along political lines with, generally speaking, conservatives complaining about books and liberals defending them, usually on free speech grounds.
By any objective measure, it would seem that the plaintiff here has the challenge of demonstrating that the defendants’ activities are malicious and that they go beyond normal debate over a public issue.
Caivano is represented by her husband, Anthony P. Caivano, who practices in Denville. He has not yet responded to phone calls.