Iowa Town Threatens Critical Resident With A Lawsuit, Gets Sued By The ACLU Instead

from the First-Amendment-For-(Government)-Dummies dept

A small town in Iowa has decided one of its residents has too much First Amendment. Boldly marching forward in the face of mild criticism, Sibley's government had its lawyer threaten a local man with a lawsuit if he didn't take down or alter his website that criticized the town government for its repeated failure to address a serious problem in the town.

Sibley has less than 3,000 residents but it is the home to a large animal byproduct processing plant. Iowa Drying and Processing went into operation five years ago. Unaffectionately nicknamed the "Blood Plant," IDP's operations were the subject of complaints due to the pervasive foul odor emanating from it.

Local programmer Jeremy Harms set up a website advising people to stay away from Sibley after repeated calls for action were met with a lot of doing nothing by city politicians. His website previously answered the question about relocating to Sibley with "No." Thanks to the city's legal threats, the answer has been upgraded to "Maybe." In addition to pulling his hard "no," Sibley also amended his original post to reflect the few positives the town has.

After his website went locally viral (2,000 hits from a town with less than 3,000 residents), the government decided to act. It didn't approach the Blood Plant about taming the fumes. Instead, it sent a letter to Harms threatening him with a lawsuit if he didn't stop criticizing the town and its government. On top of that, the city's attorney (Daniel Dekoter) ordered Harms to stop talking to the press. These dubious demands were backed by a dubious interpretation of state law.

The Jan. 18 letter stated the original content of shouldyoumovetosibleyia.com was disparaging property in Sibley, which led to a reduction in taxable value of the property. It also stated Iowa recognizes a type of lawsuit called “slander of title,” which involves the disparagement of real estate. The letter stated Harms displayed malice by the fact that he renewed the domain name registration of his website, despite progress being made with the smells, that he chose a website name that would target people interested in moving to Sibley and that he claimed the information was current when it was false.

“In short, that line of reasoning was the legal and factual basis for the threat of litigation,” DeKoter wrote. “I am writing on my own time to explain this, since you or the lawyer you consulted apparently did not view the legal issues from the same perspective that I did.

[...]

The letter continued that Harms was within his legal rights to publish the website in its current, altered form, but the opinion of DeKoter is that Harms would do better spending time doing something more helpful to the community of Sibley.

It's a hell of law to cite when engaging in censorship and prior restraint. Good luck getting that one to hold up in court. The law requires false statements and malice, and nothing Harms published even comes close to that. Considering there's press coverage confirming several residents' complaints about the odor of the plant, the basis for the statements made on Harms' website seem very truthful and not published with a reckless disregard for the truth. It takes more than the potential to drive away residents to make this allegation stick, no matter what spin the town's lawyer applied in his follow-up threat to Harms.

Dekoter might feel he can browbeat a town resident with a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo about "slander of title," but he'll have to do better than that answering the ACLU's complaint [PDF], filed on behalf of Mr. Harms. This followed a letter sent in December, in which the city's attorney instructed Harms to either take down the site or start filling it with positive comments about Sibley.

The ACLU's complaint recounts previous news coverage of the Blood Plant's effect on Sibley residents. It also notes that coverage of the issue has now become completely one-sided thanks to the town muscling Harms out of the conversation. As a result of the legal threat, Harms cancelled an interview with local journalists. The resulting article only ran the city's side of the story with no rebuttal from the target of its ire.

This prior restraint allowed city leaders to do what they wanted when speaking to the press, including denying threatening letters were sent. If Harms couldn't speak to journalists, he certainly wouldn't be handing over copies of the two letters he had already received.

The ACLU seeks a permanent injunction against everything the town has threatened, as well as a judgment affirming Harms' right to criticize the government. This should be a quick win for Harms as there's little the First Amendment protects more than criticism of those in power. It is at the heart of this right and anything a government tries to do to shut down criticism will run an unfriendly judicial gauntlet. All that's really unsettled at this point is how much it's going to cost Sibley residents, who not only have to put up with fumes town leaders didn't want to address, but will soon be asked to cover the costs of the town's boneheaded First Amendment violations.


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  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 13 Mar 2018 @ 11:04am

    I hope Daniel Dekoter hates losing in court—because he has one hell of an “L” coming his way.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Gary (profile), 13 Mar 2018 @ 12:28pm

    Sounds like their legal puffery had the intended consequences - they blocked the press conference and got the website changed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2018 @ 12:56pm

    Thankfully I'm moving to Dowisetrepia. Nice condos. Cheap prices.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2018 @ 1:06pm

    If anything is lowering the property values - it would be the stench from the bloody factory.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2018 @ 1:14pm

    Looks like the stench has been addressed. I like the updated site stating 'only a fool...' - sounds like a dig at the incompetent officials.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Not an Electronic Rodent (profile), 13 Mar 2018 @ 1:18pm

    TANJ it!

    All that's really unsettled at this point is how much it's going to cost Sibley residents, who not only have to put up with fumes town leaders didn't want to address, but will soon be asked to cover the costs of the town's boneheaded First Amendment violations

    If there were any justice, the court would direct that the 1st amendment violation was by the idiots in the town government rather than the government itself and order them to pay personally. I rather suspect the law does not allow for that, but it would be far more satisfying karma-wise.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      David, 14 Mar 2018 @ 1:11am

      Re: TANJ it!

      Don't elect idiots if you don't want to cover for their expenses. If there are only idiots on the ballot, campaign yourself.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 14 Mar 2018 @ 1:31am

        'You can't hold me personally responsible, I'm a politician!'

        "If elected I promise that I will spend taxpayer money, your money, on grossly unconstitutional lawsuits in an attempt to shut down people who are critical of my actions, that raise concerns that I don't want to deal with, or that say negative things about this town, whether true or not."

        Funnily enough I don't think most politicians would run on that sort of campaign, either because they don't plan on doing something like that(yet do it anyway), or they do plan on it and understand that saying something like that would almost certainly cost them the election.

        Politics and police work: Two of the available fields of employment where the person who did the act is never the one who has the pay the bill, and where the people who hire you and/or vote you in are told off for not being able to see the future.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Not an Electronic Rodent (profile), 14 Mar 2018 @ 6:03am

        Re: Re: TANJ it!

        If there are only idiots on the ballot, campaign yourself.

        And you hold what public office? However, I suspect that were I to campaign I would get little support. The sad truth of politics is that people want to believe the impossible promises politicians make rather than the cold, hard fact that, for example, you aren't going to get lower taxes and higher public spending. The Liberal Democrats over here tried the truth tack a few elections back and, predictably, got horrible pasted and lost a bunch of seats. Apparently, writing about a mythical, Utopian future on the side of a bus is the way to get votes...

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2018 @ 1:50pm

    wonder what out_of_the_aclu thinks of this

    > "Sibley also amended his original post to reflect the few positives the town has."

    ??? Shouldn't that be the person "Harms"? Or is the town in this age of confused pronouns now due the word "his"? -- Did anyone READ the piece? ... No. And you kids think that my casual skimming isn't adequate. Fact is, I skim more accurately than you who move your lips while reading can do at best.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile), 13 Mar 2018 @ 4:20pm

      Re: wonder what out_of_the_aclu thinks of this

      Thank you for your understated correction request. But waste too much time here. There's a whole internet crying out for comments from people whose lips move when they type.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2018 @ 8:23pm

      Re:

      out_of_the_blue just hates it when due process is enforced.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 13 Mar 2018 @ 2:46pm

    hELPFUL?

    "helpful to the community of Sibley."

    Fire.
    (why convert it to Methane and use it to power the area)

    "Sibley's government had its lawyer threaten a local man with a lawsuit "

    Can we ASK, where the City counsel and may live?? MOVE the counsel meetings(AT LEAST) closer tot he problem...(those that goto the meeting would LOVE to move the meetings)
    Also how many Towns people WORK at the plant, including the Owner and Boss's.. AND WHY IN HELL are then closer then 5 miles to the town..


    "has now become completely one-sided thanks to the town muscling Harms"

    Ever been Ostracized and Abused in a small town??
    HE has to get the Towns people BEHIND HIM.. Which means MORE people to the meetings, TAKING control of the Meetings.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DB (profile), 13 Mar 2018 @ 3:17pm

    "Slander of Title" seems to be only mis-used

    Slander of title is falsely claiming that you own a property, or specific rights associated with it. The claim also typically requires that it decreases the value of the property.

    Saying something unrelated to the title/ownership doesn't fall under this, even if it decreases the value of the property.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2018 @ 3:19pm

    Let me get this straight.

    People who didn't like English laws and the whim of the aristocracy and monarchy moved to a new country to exercise their right to free speech and rigorous debate without malicious prosecution. This right then becomes enshrined in the Constitution, by which all other laws and government institutions are ruled.

    Then, over time, a bunch of jerks (almost always in the pocket of business) decide that maybe English law is not so bad after all - and here we are on Techdirt talking about these pieces of crap on a daily basis.

    As the slogan says - if you don't love America, leave. Get a passport and move back to the old country, but you'll need to leave your weapons behind.

    You stupid people in local government are the ones making life hard for everyone.

    Jeremy harms no one but the naked emperor.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 14 Mar 2018 @ 10:44am

      Re: Let me get this straight.

      Our forefathers left for allot of reasons..
      From the banking system(S) to Churches, The Aristocracy, the Governments of the time..

      Then we FINALLY, got the area Settled, and started domesticating this land, and GUESS WHO CAME FOR DINNER..

      It was ASIF, we forgot WHY WE LEFT..

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    David (profile), 13 Mar 2018 @ 4:30pm

    Sibly if you lived here -

    You would be smelling the Blood Plant!

    You would be wishing you weren't.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2018 @ 6:41pm

    "...led to a reduction in taxable value of the property."
    Is this for real? All I need to do is put up a random negative website and property values will decrease? Now I know how to get that house I've always wanted.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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