The ACLU of Iowa has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a web developer in the northwest Iowa town of Sibley after city officials threatened a lawsuit for his criticism their handling of a smelly situation.

Josh Harms created the website “Should You Move to Sibley, Iowa?” which is critical of the way the city has handled odors created by the Iowa Drying and Processing company. ACLU Legal Director, Rita Bettis, says the website was up for a couple of years before an attorney sent Harms a letter threatening him.

“Our lawsuit is seeking to protect Josh from what we alleges is unconstitutional censorship of his speech regarding Sibley,” Bettis says. “Both the way that it smells and his views about the government’s effectiveness in addressing the smell problem.” She says Harms created a website in 2015 and didn’t hear anything until 2017 when the city threatened him if he didn’t alter the site or take it down. Bettis says he at first altered the website out of fear of a lawsuit, but kept up the complaints as the city’s efforts to improve the smell weren’t effective.

“IDP is a local agriculture plant that’s there in Sibley that process animal blood. And Josh in our complaint describes the smell as being like rancid dog food,” Bettis says. She says the city tried to keep Harms from his right to criticize its actions. That included being told by the city attorney that he shouldn’t talk to a local reporter about the issue.

Josh Harms

“The facts as we’ve laid out in the complaint are especially egregious. This is a case that I think when people hear about — certainly when it came across my desk — was surprising in just how blatant that the censorship that we’ve alleged in our complaint really was,” according to Bettis.

Bettis says they’ve asked the court for a temporary injunction against any legal action by the city. She says they are also asking that the preliminary injunction be made permanent and they are seeking attorney fees and punitive damages. Bettis says they have not yet decided an amount they will ask for punitive damages.

Bettis says there’s not excuse for the Sibley government to try and silence a critic. “All government at every level exists first and foremost to protect the rights of the people who it represents,” Bettis says, “and that is not different if you are a small town than if you are a big town.” Iowa Drying and Processing began operating in the town of Sidney about five years ago and got a $150,000 state grant to get started.

Radio Iowa contacted the attorney for the city of Sibley as was told he is out of the office and not available for comment.

(Photos courtesy of ACLU of Iowa)