The ability of citizens to criticize their government is a fundamental First Amendment right, and yet when Josh Harms of Sibley, Iowa, did just that on his website, he was threatened with legal action from the city.

In a lawsuit filed today by the ACLU of Iowa, Josh describes how an agricultural blood processing plant moved to town five years ago and started producing a smell like "rancid dog food." He created a web site called Should you Move to Sibley? that was critical of the city's inaction in addressing the smell. It was so bad, he said in the lawsuit, that at times he couldn't open his windows or run his air conditioner.

The city sent Josh a letter threatening legal action if he didn't make the website more positive or take it down altogether. Intimidated, he altered the site to make it more positive and even, under pressure, stated that the smell wasn't as much of a problem anymore—though while improved, he continues to believe it's a significant problem.

The city also instructed Josh to not grant an interview with a reporter who contacted him, even though the city did talk to the reporter and denied directing their attorney to send Josh the letter threatening legal action. 

“As a web developer, the right to free speech, especially online, is extremely important to me,” Josh say. “Receiving this threat from the city was the first time I’ve ever felt afraid that what I might write and put online would make me a target of my own government. I want to use my skills as web developer to protest and to help my community. I grew up here. My family lives here. I’m trying to make the lives of myself and the people who live here better.”

In his lawsuit, Josh asks to be able, without intimidation or threats of legal action, to revise the web site to restore the content he wants, including stating that the smell is indeed a continuing problem. He also wants to be able to publish on his website the letter from the city threatening legal action, and other communications from the city.  Josh also wants to be free to speak out in the media. 

To read the full press release, click here.

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