DES MOINES — An Iowa town is threatening to sue one of its residents over a website that criticizes officials for failing to take action against a processing plant that smells like "rancid dog food."
Sibley, a small town in northwest Iowa, sent Josh Harms a letter in December asking him to take down the site — titled “Should You Move to Sibley, Iowa? — within 10 days or face a lawsuit.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa filed a lawsuit Thursday on behalf of Harms, seeking to block city officials from making legal threats or "taking other action to force him to remove or alter the content of a website he created."
Harms said it's his constitutional right to speak out against government officials, who he believes are not doing enough to remedy the smell problem.
Earlier versions of his website suggested people might not want to move to Sibley until the city addressed the "horrible rotten-blood and stale-beer odor that hangs over the town."
“You can’t escape the stench no matter where you are in town,” Harms wrote, encouraging residents to attend public meetings and call officials with odor complaints.
“As a web developer, the right to free speech, especially online, is extremely important to me,” Harms said in a statement. “That is what the First Amendment and free speech are all about.”
Harms seeks punitive damages that have yet to be determined, his attorneys said.
In a video released by the ACLU, Harms said, that the plant — Iowa Drying and Processing, a high-protein animal feed supplement made from pig plasma — sometimes smelled like dead animals or sewage.
"It was just a wall of fumes would hit you," he said, adding that he often couldn't open windows or run an air-conditioner. "It was an absolutely terrible odor."
Daniel DeKoter, an attorney representing Sibley, sent the December letter. It said Harms was "understandably frustrated" with the odor, but the problem had been "alleviated through litigation."
The city fined the plant dozens of times since it opened in 2013 over odor concerns. The city and company exchanged lawsuits that have since been dismissed.
Iowa Drying and Processing filed a lawsuit against Sibley last month, claiming its odor ordinance was vague and arbitrarily enforced, hurting its business.
DeKoter wrote to Harms that his website had "not modified ... despite the progress made."
DeKoter told Harms that a local clinic lost a physician recruit, who had read his site.
The attorney said the website libels Sibley, interferes with the recruitment of businesses and new residents, and negatively affects property rights.
"I have no idea, why you, as a community resident, would want to do harm to your fellow citizens," DeKoter wrote.
Intimidated, Harms consulted a local lawyer and altered the website to be less critical of the city, the ACLU said.
Harms' lawsuit states that he even added — at the city’s request and from fear of legal action — that the smell is no longer a problem, even though Harms believes the smell is still a significant problem.
Harms also added things he likes about Sibley, and statements indicating the website represented merely his opinion.
About the same time, Harms met another attorney from DeKoter's firm, who indicated "it would not be Harms’ best interest to speak with a reporter" about the city's efforts to take down the website, the lawsuit said.
He didn't participate in a N'West Iowa Review story, which quoted some local leaders saying they hadn't authorized DeKoter's letter.
The ACLU included published City Council minutes that included discussions about a negative website, stating an attorney was "sending letter to get it down."
DeKoter sent Harms another letter in January, saying it was not a threat of litigation and wasn't "intended to deter you exercise of your legal rights."
Harms wants to block the city of Sibley from further censorship, the ACLU said, so he can update and restore the content he wants on his website, including a statement that the smell is still a problem.
“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 lawsuit said that when the plant first started operating five years ago, many people were excited to have new jobs in the town of nearly 3,000.
But then, the plant started to produce a smell “like rancid dog food,” the lawsuit says.
“In this lawsuit, we allege that the city of Sibley has trampled on our client’s right to engage in political speech criticizing the city," said ACLU of Iowa Legal’s Director Rita Bettis.
"Sibley may smell sometimes, thanks to the IDP plant, but censorship also stinks.”