SIBLEY, Iowa -- A court injunction issued Thursday orders the city of Sibley to stop threatening legal action against a web designer whose website has been critical of the city's handling of an odor issue with a local company.
The injunction, signed by U.S. District Judge Leonard Strand, also prevents the city from telling Sibley resident Joshua Harms he can't talk to the media about actions the city has threatened to take against him.
As part of a settlement agreement approved Monday by the Sibley City Council, the city will provide First Amendment training for city staff, issue a written apology to Harms, pay Harms $6,500 in damages and $20,475 in attorney fees to the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which represented 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 in a statement released by the ACLU. "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."
Harms, 28, created his website, shouldyoumovetosibleyia.com in July 2015 after watching the city's attempts to control odors from the Iowa Drying & Processing plant near Sibley's downtown business district. Harms said on his site that odors from the IDP plant smelled "like rancid dog food." Harms also encouraged site visitors to attend public hearings and call local officials to file complaints.
Late last year, the city sent Harms a cease and desist letter telling him his website was interfering with recruitment of businesses. The letter told Harms that if his website was not taken down within 10 days, "your next notice will be in the form of a lawsuit."
Harms said in his suit, filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Sioux City, that the city's lawyer later told him not to talk about the cease and desist letter to a newspaper reporter who had asked to interview him about it. The threat of a lawsuit, Harms said, kept him from updating his website to inform Sibley residents about the odor problem, post a copy of the cease and desist letter, add a form through which residents can report odors and purchase the web domain "sibleystinks.com" for reporting IDP odors.
Hugh Cain, a Des Moines attorney who represented the city, was not immediately available to comment about the settlement.
ACLU of Iowa legal director Rita Bettis commended the city for its willingness to reach an agreement to resolve the lawsuit.
"Today's outcome sends a strong message to the city of Sibley and all Iowa government officials to respect the free speech rights of Iowans," Bettis said in a news release. "The right of the people to freely and openly criticize their government is the very foundation of democracy. In America, the government cannot threaten legal action against someone for speaking out against it."
Harms said he plans to continue to update his website and criticize the city, if necessary, about the odor problems, which he said have improved.
"It's better, but I don't personally consider it resolved," Harms said.
The plant's owner sued the city in federal court in February, claiming the city's odor ordinance is unconstitutional and has been arbitrarily enforced against the plant and no one else.