The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is arguably the most important part of the document because it guarantees all citizens the right to free speech. It means we have the right to openly debate (and criticize) each other, our neighbors, public figures, and most importantly, our own government. That right extends to specific individuals who work for, or are hoping to obtain positions in, the government. Having envisioned a government made by the people for the people, our founding fathers realized that freedom of speech would be a key ingredient to this experiment, which is why they lost no time in adding it to the Constitution.
So Josh Harms was probably taken by surprise when officials of the city in which he lives threatened to sue him for exercising his First Amendment right.
Harms, who lives in Sibley, Iowa, has been protesting his city’s government on his website, which is called “Should You Move to Sibley, Iowa?” Harms set up the website, and posts on it, in order to protest the city’s decision to allow Iowa Drying and Processing to move into a vacant building in Sibley in 2013. Harms started posting on his website a couple years later in 2015.
Iowa Drying and Processing uses pig blood to make a protein-rich supplement for animal food, so it’s not hard to imagine that Harms’ odor concerns are legitimate. He was most likely not far from the mark when he wrote on his website that the town smelled like “rancid dog food.”
If the city’s decision to allow an animal food processing company to move into town really did stink up the town as badly as Harms claims, then as a tax-paying citizen, he has every right to complain about any decision his representatives have made, and even to warn potential residents off, if he feels inclined to do so.
Just like anyone would advise a friend to move to or avoid certain cities or parts of the country, the internet gives us the opportunity to provide our advice publicly. Anyone who chooses to access our opinion, and our reasoning for that opinion, can do so and use that information to make their own decisions.
That’s all Harms was doing when he received letters from city officials that said they would sue him if he didn’t stop disparaging the town’s issue with smelly air.
Rather than waiting for the city to follow through on its threat, Harms decided to take the first step by enlisting the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa to file a freedom of speech lawsuit against the officials of the Sibley government. Harms and the ACLU of Iowa asked the court to block city officials from suing Harms and Judge Leonard Strand complied by issuing a permanent injunction against the city doing so.
Both Harms and the city agreed to the injunction, as well as a settlement in which the city would pay Harms $6,500 in damages, plus $20,000 in legal fees for the costs he incurred in filing the lawsuit. The city also agreed to apologize in writing and to institute First Amendment training for its staff to ensure all their employees are made aware that for a government employee to threaten to sue someone for speaking out against the government constitutes censorship and goes against American principles.
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