SIOUX CITY, IOWA – The US District Court for the Northern District of Iowa has ordered the city of Sibley not to sue a resident for using social media to complain about the stench of a local dog-food processing plant, causing the internet to wonder, “What was the city thinking?”
In 2013, after receiving financial incentives from the city government, Iowa Drying and Processing began operations in the small town of Sibley. According to their website, their product is “food and feed grade products,” created by rendering such appetizing items as “turkey digest.” The plant brought twenty-six jobs to the small town, but unfortunately, it also brought a nuisance that residents couldn’t ignore: a pervasive and gagging stench that permeated the entire town, especially on hot and humid days.
Wade Elerbroek, a Sibley resident and business owner, described the smell as “as rancid and dead animal-like” in the Sioux City Journal. Residents complained that the smell was so noxious, it prevented them from being able to use their air-conditioners, open their windows, or even dine in the small town’s restaurants. They christened IDP’s plant, “The Blood Plant,” and complained to their city government.
In 2015, frustrated by what he perceived to be that government’s inaction, resident and web designer Josh Harms created the website Should You Move To Sibley, Iowa? where he pointed out the town’s attractions, such as hiking trails and his favorite Mexican restaurant, and contrasted those local perks against the asphyxiating aroma of stale blood and processed animal parts.
While it took the city government two years to discover the website, once they did, they were not amused, and they felt compelled to take action against Harms for publishing his critical blog. As reported in The Des Moines Register, an attorney for the city sent Harms a cease and desist letter, advising him he had ten days to remove his website or be sued. The city claimed that Harm’s website “libels Sibley, interferes with the recruitment of businesses and new residents, and negatively affects property rights.” Another attorney also warned Harms against speaking to reporters. Harms went straight to the ACLU, and a complaint was filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, where Harms alleged the city was violating his First Amendment and Civil Rights. “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,” Harms said in a statement.
The US District Court agreed, and issued an injunction on Thursday, March 29, 2018, preventing the city government of Sibley from threatening legal action against Harms due to his critical website; it also prevents the city from telling Harms he can’t talk to the media.
ACLU Legal Director of Iowa, Rita Bettis, stated “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. 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.”
The Constitution thus defended, Harms returned to work on his website, where he now offers a bit of legal advice for governments large and small, concerning the definition of libel, and the illumination of citizens’ rights, in hopes of avoiding future confusion. The city, for its part, has fined the “Blood Plant” and sought its own legal remedies. According to Harms, the odor has improved, although noxious fumes occasionally return to plague the citizens. As for the dog food plant, they state they are actively working to mitigate the fumes, and they’re also considering moving to greener pastures.