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. So with the help of the ACLU of Iowa, he filed a successful lawsuit to block the city from silencing him. 

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,  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.”

On March 29, a federal judge issued an injunction, blocking the city from making further legal threats and allowing him to talk freely to the media. The city also agreed with the ACLU to:

• Provide training on the First Amendment for city staff

• Issue a written apology to Josh

• 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 Josh

Josh said, “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.”


 

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