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Sibley resident wins lawsuit over ‘stinky’ censorship

SIBLEY, Iowa -- Josh Harms, a Sibley resident who created a website critical of his hometown -- specifically of the smell coming out of a local food processing plant -- has won a legal battle with the city of Sibley.

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Pictured is Josh Harms. (Special to The Globe)

SIBLEY, Iowa -  Josh Harms, a Sibley resident who created a website critical of his hometown - specifically of the smell coming out of a local food processing plant - has won a legal battle with the city of Sibley.

The city’s legal firm threatened Harms with legal action if he didn’t take down his website, http://shouldyoumovetosibleyia.com , prompting the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa to represent him in a lawsuit against the city.
Last week, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa issued a permanent injunction in favor of Harms and his First Amendment rights, preventing the city from making any further legal threats. With the injunction, the city must pay $6,500 in damages and deliver a written apology to Harms, cover $20,475 in attorneys’ fees and provide training on the First Amendment to city staff.

“That’s my favorite part,” a cheerful Harms said of the First Amendment training.

Harms, a 28-year-old web developer, created the website in 2015. Though his website discussed the pros and cons of Sibley, the main issue was the powerful smell coming out of the Iowa Drying & Processing (IDP) food processing plant located on the south side of town. Depending on the day, the entire city would smell like stale beer, roadkill or sewage, thanks to the “Blood Plant,” Harms said.

“It really depends, but none of those are a very great smell,” Harms said.

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On Dec. 12, 2017, the city’s attorney sent Harms a letter demanding he take down the website within 10 days or face legal action. The letter said the local Avera clinic lost a physician prospect after reading the website, and claimed the website libeled the city of Sibley.

“Is this a joke?” Harms thought to himself at first. However, shortly after receiving the letter, Harms started to doubt himself.

“I thought, ‘what if I’m wrong here, what if there’s a technicality and I end up getting sued and spend a lot of money that I can’t afford?’” Harms said. “I was definitely pretty fearful when I got it.”

When the ACLU took on the case and Harms first filed the lawsuit March 8, he assumed one of two things would happen - either the town wouldn’t care, or everybody would hate him for bringing negative attention to Sibley.

Instead, the story made its way all the way up to the Associated Press and BBC, and Harms has become somewhat of a celebrity in his hometown.  

“So far, everybody I’ve talked to in town has been super supportive about it,” Harms said. “They’re happy to hear that I filed the lawsuit and, later on, that I won it.”

The smell of the IDP plant has improved over the last year. It now only releases an awful smell a few times a month, rather than three to five times a week, Harms said.

Meanwhile, the city of Sibley has fined IDP several times for failure to comply with the city’s odor ordinance. IDP filed a lawsuit against the city in February, claiming the odor ordinance has cost the company millions of dollars and has disrupted a potential sale of the plant.

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Harms, who owns a home in Sibley and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon, said he will continue to monitor the IDP plant and address specific concerns that may arise within the community on his website.

“I want to improve the town as much as I can because the website does have some attention, specifically some attention from the city council,” Harms said.

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