First Amendment

Hate Crime Conviction of Iowa Man Who Left Notes at Homes With Rainbow Flags Affirmed

Rainbow flags fly across the street from the Stonewall Inn in New York
Rainbow flags fly across the street from the Stonewall Inn in New York, June 15, 2020. (Reuters/Bryan R. Smith)

By The Associated Press

The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the hate crime conviction Friday of a man who posted hand-written notes at homes with rainbow flags and emblems, urging them to “burn that gay flag.”

The majority rejected the claim by Robert Clark Geddes that his conviction for trespassing as a hate crime violated his free speech rights. But a dissenting justice said a hate crime conviction wasn’t appropriate since it wasn’t clear if the people displaying the symbols were actually associated with the LGBTQ+ community.

As the court noted, the rainbow flag has come to symbolize support for LGBTQ+ rights. The majority said the state statute in question does not criminalize speech, but rather conduct with a specific intent — trespassing because the property owners or residents had associated themselves with a protected class.

“The individuals’ display of the LGBTQ+ flag or flag decal on their own properties was an exercise of First Amendment rights; the defendant’s surreptitious entry onto those properties to post his harassing notes was not,” the court said.

Handwritten notes turned up in June of 2021 taped to the front doors of five renters and homeowners in the town of Boone who displayed rainbow flags or decals. All said, “burn that gay flag.” One contained additional anti-gay slurs. The recipients told police they found the notes “alarming, annoying, and/or threatening,” according to the decision.

Based on surveillance video from some of the homes, police identified Geddes as the man who left the notes, and he acknowledged posting them. He was charged with five counts of trespassing as a hate crime. He was later convicted and was sentenced to up to two years of probation.

On appeal, Geddes argued prosecutors failed to prove he targeted persons who were LGBTQ+ or had a connection with them. He said his conviction therefore violated his free speech rights.

Iowa’s hate crime law requires that the victim was targeted because of their “race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, age, or disability,” or because of their ”association with” people in those categories.

In his dissent, Justice Matthew McDermott said there was no evidence in the record that the recipients of Geddes’ notes were members of the LGBTQ+ community or whether he believed they were, nor whether any of the residents had an “association with” an actual person in those protected classes. He noted that the Legislature chose the words “association with” rather than “solidarity with” when it wrote the hate crime law.

“As a symbol, a flag doesn’t independently create or express actual association with particular persons,” McDermott wrote, adding that, “Not everyone who displays a pirate flag is associated with actual pirates.”

Geddes’s attorney Ashley Stewart said they were disappointed in the decision.

“We should all be concerned with protecting the free marketplace of ideas under the First Amendment even if the ideas are minority opinions,” Stewart wrote in an email. “Iowa’s hate crime statute requires the victim be associated with a targeted group. We agree with the dissent that the mere display of a flag on a home does not meet the criteria.”

Jane Kirtley, a First Amendment expert at the University of Minnesota, said the dissenting justice may have a valid point. When hate crimes are so tied to expression, she said, the particular facts of the case matter. She agreed that there might not be enough facts in the record to establish whether Geddes’ actions violated the hate crimes law, given its use of the vague term “association with.”

“Words matter,” Kirtley said in an interview. “Legislatures can write with greater precision. Judges are reluctant to read things into ambiguous language, and rightly so.”