April 2, 2018 - 9:19 am - Posted in News

Sibley, Iowa — A Sibley man says he is pleased that he won his lawsuit against the city over his criticism on his website of their handling of a smelly factory. A federal court issued an injunction Thursday telling city leaders to stop violating web developer Josh Harms’ free speech rights by threatening to sue him.

He says the quick results are an indication the City of Sibley had no legal standing.

Harms created the website “Should You Move to Sibley, Iowa?. ” It is critical of the way the city has handled odors created by the Iowa Drying and Processing company. He lived close to the plant and says the smell was like “rancid dog food.” Harms says the issue was the smell — not the town itself.

Under the settlement, the city was ordered train its staff on the First Amendment and had to pay 20-thousand dollars to the A-C-L-U for legal expenses. Harms was also awarded 65-hundred dollars in damages.

Harms has this advice for others who have concerns they want to have heard.

As for the smell that started all this?

Harms says he hopes the city can continue working with the plant to improve the problem.

Original story, posted March 30th, 11:19 a.m.:

Sibley, Iowa — The City of Sibley has received word from the federal court system that it may not threaten to sue a Sibley man for his comments on his website, and must pay nearly $27,000 in legal fees and damages for doing so.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa has issued a permanent injunction ordering the City of Sibley to refrain from suing — or threatening to sue — Josh Harms of Sibley for protesting the town’s response to strong smells created by an agricultural plasma processing plant in town.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa earlier this month filed a lawsuit on Harms’ behalf. That lawsuit sought to block city officials from making legal threats or taking other action to force Harms to remove or change a website he created. That website at one point criticized city officials about a smell “like rancid dog food” from the ag processing plant. The city also instructed Harms not to talk to the media about the odor and even not to talk to local media about the city’s threats of litigation against him.

The ACLU successfully argued that those actions violated Harms’ right to free speech.

The permanent injunction, which the City of Sibley has agreed to, blocks the city from “directing Harms not to speak with reporters, threatening to bring a lawsuit, or actually bringing a lawsuit against Harms for speaking with reporters or publishing www.shouldyoumovetosibleyia.com in its previous form or in any future form, including www.sibleystinks.com or any other successor websites that criticize the City of Sibley or the Defendants in the conduct of City business.”

As part of the injunction, the City of Sibley has agreed to:

• Provide training on the First Amendment for city staff

• Issue a written apology to Harms

• Cover $20,475 in attorneys’ fees for the time that the ACLU and its cooperating attorney spent defending Harms’ speech rights

• Pay $6,500 in damages to Harms

Harms says, “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. 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.”

Photo caption: Harms in downtown Sibley (photo courtesy Iowa ACLU)

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