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.