As It Happens

Judge rules Iowa man has right to talk about his foul-smelling town

A resident of a small city in Iowa has won a court case defending his right to talk about how much his community smells.

Josh Harms wins lawsuit in free-speech case against the city of Sibley

Sibley, Iowa, resident Josh Harms found himself in a legal battle after writing about how stinky his town is on his website. (Submitted by Josh Harms)
Listen6:20

The city of Sibley, Iowa, is known for its rich, fertile soil, the work ethic of its residents, and, according to its website, being simply "a great place to live."

Unfortunately, thanks to one local resident, it's also become known widely as a city that smells really bad.

Last year, Josh Harms was threatened with legal action from Sibley's city council for writing on his website about an awful smell coming from a local factory.

But now, thanks to a federal judge's ruling, Harms can talk all he wants about how his town stinks. 

One day it could like stale beer, the next day it could smell like a dead animal, and then another day it could smell like sewage.- Sibley  resident Josh Harms

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Harms about his foul-smelling town. Here is part of their conversation.

Josh, what does your city smell like?

It depends on the day that you smell it. One day it could like stale beer, the next day it could smell like a dead animal, and then another day it could smell like sewage.

And what is the actual smell coming from?

The smell's coming from some kind of agricultural processing plant that moved in a few years ago. They take some kind of pig blood, I believe, and they turn it into dog food. Here in town we gave it the nickname of "The Blood Plant".
 

How bad does it get?

Back when I created my website, it was three or four times a week. And it would just hang over the entire town. You could smell it even outside of town if you're downwind.

It was right across the street from me. I could look out my window and I'd see the factory right there.

At what point did you decide that you should do something about this? 

I had lived in my house right across from the plant for about a year, or maybe more that that. And I started reading online — because I was getting fed up with it — our city council would post [their] minutes.

And I would always read, "The city council heard concerns about the plant" or "The city council is investigating the plant."

But I would never see the city council is doing something about it. So in 2015 I decided to make my website to protest both the plant being there and what I saw as the city's complete inaction for dealing it. 

Harms lives right beside an Iowa drying and processing factory, which he says is the culprit behind the awful smell. (Submitted by Josh Harms)

And what was the name of your website?

It's ShouldYouMoveToSibleyIA.com.

And how did council respond to that? 

For about two years, I heard nothing from the city council themselves. I heard a lot from people living in town that they were supporting what I did. But I didn't hear from any government officials until December 2017.

And that was when they sent me a letter saying that I had to take it down. It said: your website is libelling the city of Sibley and it's decreasing property values and it cost the clinic here in town a physician.

And it said if I didn't take it down within 10 days, they would file a lawsuit.

And how did you react?

The first thing I did was send an email to the [American Civil Liberties Union]. And then I consulted a lawyer here in town.  

The town of Sibley can no longer threaten legal action against Harms thanks to an injunction. (Submitted by Josh Harms)

Now you've won.

Yes. We reached a settlement with the city of Sibley. So they had to agree to an injunction with me, which means they can't sue me and can't threaten me with legal action.

We sued them because they were violating my right to criticize the government without fear of repercussion.

You got some money as well.

I did. I got $6,500 in damages. And then the government also has to pay $20,000 in attorneys fees to the ACLU.

But you're gonna stay in Sibley?

Yes. My entire family lives here. I was born here, I went to school here. And last year we bought our first house here.

And you're going to continue [your website]?

Yes. The problem with the blood plant has certainly improved. I have no problem admitting that.

Written by John McGill and Kevin Ball. Interview produced by Chris Harbord.

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