Judge Blocks Iowa Town From Shutting Down Or Suing Resident Over His Critical Website

from the town-lawyer-scheduled-to-be-beaten-with-Bill-of-Rights dept

The government of a small town in Iowa has just received a slapdown from a US federal court. The public servants running Sibley, Iowa — pop. ~3,000 — decided it was going to eliminate one resident’s First Amendment rights because he wouldn’t stop telling people moving to Sibley might be a bad idea.

It all began with a meat byproduct processing plant that moved to the small town, creating jobs and a powerful stench. Resident Jeremy Harms approached the town government about the nasty smell several times, but was blown off repeatedly. News of the “blood plant’s” unpleasant odor began making news around the state, but it was Harms’ personal website that finally pushed the town into violating First Amendment rights. The town’s lawyer sent Harms a legal threat, telling him to stop criticizing the town on his website and strongly suggesting he try to be more positive about the stinkhole he lived in.

Harms backed down and altered his website. But he also got in touch with the ACLU, which took up his case and sued the town over its rights violations. Less than month later, Harms is free to disparage his town and its so-called leadership. Federal judge Leonard T. Strand has granted a permanent injunction [PDF] against the town of Sibley, preventing it from silencing Harms in perpetuity.

Pursuant to the Joint Motion to enter a stipulated injunction, the Court hereby enters the following injunction:

1. An injunction permanently enjoining the City of Sibley and the named Defendants in their official capacities from directing Harms not to speak with reporters, threatening to bring a lawsuit, or actually bringing a lawsuit against the Plaintiff Harms for speaking with reporters or publishing www.shouldyoumovetosibleyia.com in its previous form or in any future form, including www.sibleystinks.com or any other successor websites that criticize the City of Sibley or the Defendants in the conduct of City business.

And that’s not all. Not only can Harms restore his “should you move” site to its former, more caustic glory, he can get his other website (Sibley Stinks) up and running. On top of that, he’s also going to be collecting from the town for his troubles, as Rox Laird reports for Courthouse News Service.

In addition to not demanding that Harms alter his website and threatening suit, the city agreed to provide training on the First Amendment to its staff, issue a written apology to Harms, and pay $20,475 in attorney fees and $6,500 in damages.

Whatever harm the city imagined might have come to Sibley, Iowa as a result of Harms’ website, it likely didn’t amount to the $27,000 it now owes Harms. Given that the site’s best day of traffic netted roughly 2,000 visitors, it was hardly a cross-platform viral town destroyer. What did go viral was the town’s heavy-handed, unconstitutional, completely inept response to justified criticism. Now Sibley’s known for something other than blood plant stench. It’s known for employing officious, censorial busybodies who seem to believe the only permissible speech is speech they like.

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Comments on “Judge Blocks Iowa Town From Shutting Down Or Suing Resident Over His Critical Website”

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btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Just once I’d love to see them put the elected officials on the hook individually rather that make the citizens pay for their stupidity.

While I agree with you in principle, given the vagaries of our supposedly independent judiciary and the crazy jury verdicts that come along with disturbing regularity, asking a city official to put everything he/she owns on the line and spin the roulette wheel just for the opportunity to sit on a city council would only result in no one sane ever bothering to do it.

And yeah, it feels good to say, screw ’em. We don’t need the politicians anyway. At least until the trash starts piling up in your driveway and there’s no firefighters to call when you wake up in the night and smell smoke.

Sharur (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

True, but we could limit the shield to an elected official’s direct duties. Writing laws (no matter how bad), is always better for citizens, as the laws are public, and can be challenged in the courts (who can order stays, or basically stop the laws from taking effect). A letter cannot be challenged in the same way.

Repeated or blatant violations could have the city’s powers reduced or contained (noting that municipal governments don’t have constitutionally recognized status, but rather have authority delegated to them by state governments).

We could also have the elected officials liability limited to an amount that is large enough to (hopefully) deter bad action, but not people from running ; an example would be one year’s salary.

Although in this case, I wouldn’t say that the elected city officials are actually directly to blame, unless the city attorney is elected (which it could be, but I’ve never seen it), or was directly instructed to write the letter. Also, the city is using state law to attempt to prop up property values, which while dubious, is seemingly legal(see laws about litter, graffiti, lawn maintenance, etc.)

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