DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – When Josh Harms made a big stink on his website about a smelly animal-feed processor in his hometown of Sibley, Iowa, the city made a stink of its own by threatening to sue Harms if he didn’t take down the site.
Then the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa got involved.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit on March 8 against the city on behalf of Harms in Des Moines federal court, and a judge there issued a permanent injunction Thursday ordering Sibley to back off from its threats against Harms’ free expression.
The stipulated injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Leonard Strand permanently bars Sibley from threatening to sue – or actually suing – Harms for publishing criticism of the city on his website or speaking with news reporters on the matter.
Both parties agreed to the terms of the injunction, though the city did not admit to the allegations made in the lawsuit.
In addition to not demanding that Harms alter his website and threatening suit, the city agreed to provide training on the First Amendment to its staff, issue a written apology to Harms, and pay $20,475 in attorney fees and $6,500 in damages.
“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 in a statement released by the ACLU of Iowa on Thursday. “Personally disagreeing with something that’s been written is understandable, but threatening the writer with a lawsuit while representing the government is censorship. It violates the First Amendment and our freedom of speech.”
Rita Bettis, legal director for the the ACLU of Iowa, said the injunction “sends a strong message to the city of Sibley and all Iowa government officials to respect the free speech rights of Iowans.”
Attorney Glen Downey of Downey & Mundy in Des Moines served as co-counsel.
Sibley City Administrator Glenn Anderson, who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Sibley used tax incentives to lure the Iowa Drying and Processing plant to the northwest Iowa community of 2,600, which, like many small Iowa towns, has struggled to attract new jobs, businesses and industry. But the plant that processes pork blood and other products into high-protein supplements for animals, including dog food, emits a pungent odor.
Harms put up his website after becoming fed up with the odors emanating from the plant near downtown Sibley, which he likened to “horrible rotten blood and stale beer” and said “you can’t escape the stench no matter where you are in town,” according to the lawsuit.
Harms, 28, a lifelong resident of Sibley who works as a computer programmer, named his website http://shouldyoumovetosibleyia.com/, a dig at what he saw as the plant’s negative impact on the city’s economic-development strategy. His initial answer to the question: “No.” The website drew nearly 2,000 visits in a matter of days, the complaint states.
The odor had drawn protests from local residents, but Harms’ pungent critiques on his website motivated the city to take action against him.
The City Council directed the city attorney to send a cease and desist letter to Harms threatening a lawsuit if he did not take down the website and replace it with “non-derogatory material” within 10 days. The city told Harms in a second letter his website slandered the city’s name and contained misinformation, and he was advised by an attorney for the city not to talk to a reporter.
In the face of the legal threat from the city, Harms revised his website and answered his question, “Should you move to the Sibley, Iowa?” with, “Only you can answer that.”