DES MOINES — The city of Sibley agrees it will no longer threaten to sue a resident who criticized officials on his website for failing to stop the "rancid dog food" smell coming from a processing plant.
A district court Thursday issued a permanent injunction, ordering officials from the northwest Iowa town to refrain from suing — or threatening to sue — Josh Harms, who operates the Should You Move to Sibley, Iowa? website.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa filed a lawsuit earlier this month against Sibley after an official sent Harms a letter in December asking him to take down his website within 10 days or face legal action.
Harms said it's his constitutional right to speak out against government officials, who he believes are not doing enough to remedy the odor coming from a pork blood processing plant.
Earlier versions of his website suggested people might not want to move to Sibley until city officials addressed the "horrible rotten-blood and stale-beer odor that hangs over the town."
The injunction, which the city agreed to, blocks Sibley officials from “directing Harms not to speak with reporters, threatening to bring a lawsuit, or actually bringing a lawsuit against" Harms.
Sibley also agreed to:
• Provide training on the First Amendment to city staff.
• Issue a written apology to Harms.
• Cover $20,475 in attorneys’ fees for the time the ACLU and its cooperating attorney spent defending Harms’ speech rights.
• Pay $6,500 in damages to Harms.
“I'm happy that the city of Sibley has recognized they were wrong to threaten me for the criticism I've written and published online," Harms said.
"Personally disagreeing with something that's been written is understandable, but threatening the writer with a lawsuit while representing the government is censorship," he said. "It violates the First Amendment and our freedom of speech."
The city had instructed Harms not to talk to the media about the odor issue and the city’s threats of litigation against him.
The ACLU successfully argued that those actions violated Harms’ right to free speech.
With the injunction, Harms said he hoped to use his skills as a web developer "to improve the lives of everyone living in Sibley by calling attention to the problems we face."
"It should go without saying that sometimes calling attention to problems may not be great for the town government's reputation. However, that doesn’t provide a basis to the town to try to block residents’ speech,” he said in a statement.
Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa legal director, said the outcome "sends a strong message to the city of Sibley and all Iowa government officials to respect the free speech rights of Iowans."
"The right of the people to freely and openly criticize their government is the very foundation of democracy," Bettis said.