Iowa City introduces new hate-crime ordinance

Harassment and trespassing may now considered hate crimes under a new Iowa City ordinance — meaning offenders can be faced with more serious fines but cannot receive a more serious crime classification.


Emily Wangen

City Hall is seen on July 17, 2019. A variety of city government departments are housed within the building’s walls alongside the Iowa City City Council, which holds meetings in Emma J. Harvat Hall.

Rylee Wilson, News Reporter

Following a reported increase in the number of hate crimes, Iowa City has expanded its hate-crime ordinance to include harassment and trespassing.

The ordinance, which the Iowa City City Council passed in June, expands the scope of what can be considered a hate crime in the city beyond what is defined as a hate crime in the state. Under the Iowa Code, only assault, arson, and criminal mischief can be considered a hate crime when committed because of a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and other protected classes.

The punishment for a first offense of a hate crime is a fine of at least $300, not to exceed $625. Repeat offenses incur at least a $625 fine and 30 days’ imprisonment.

A press release from the city noted that the number of reported hate crimes in the city have been increasing. Six calls were made to the police regarding hate crimes in 2017, znd 14 such calls were made in 2018.

Police Capt. Denise Brotherton said it is unclear if the number of hate crimes is actually increasing or if people are now more comfortable reporting the crimes to the police.

“It’s hard to tell if we’ve had an uptick. I think it’s a combination of, yeah people might be acting more bold and mean,” she said. But we also hope some of the reports have gone up because people in our community who are members of protected classes, we’re hoping that they also trust us, so they’re willing to report to us. We’ve gotten the word out that there that we want to hear when something happens to a community member.”

RELATED: City Council comes to three-year decision on Forest View mobile home park 

While Iowa City is able to charge higher penalties for hate crimes committed, harassment and trespassing cannot be charged as more serious crimes because state law does not include these acts in the definition of hate crimes.

While the city has experienced incidents of racist fliers and messages being distributed to residences and posted in public areas downtown, these acts are not considered hate crimes under the new ordinance.

“There’s still going to be those situations that this doesn’t cover. When you see people put fliers around town, that may be upsetting,” Brotherton said. “But they’re still protected by free speech since they’re not targeted at a specific person.” .

The hate-crime addition was initially proposed by the Johnson County Interfaith Coalition.

In a discussion at the June 4 City Council meeting, community members expressed concern that this ordinance may not be enough to address the issue of rising hate crimes.

“It may not be the perfect solution. But it may just be the best solution that we can get at this point in time, and again, it may just be the first step as we move through these things,” City Councilor Susan Mims said in the meeting.

In a press release, Iowa City Police Chief Jody Matherly said the new ordinance sends a message about commitment to reducing acts of hate in Iowa City.

“While harassing another person is already unlawful under state law, such intimidating or threatening communication directed at someone because of the color of their skin, who they are, or what they believe is an abominable act that our community takes seriously,” Matherly said in the release. “This ordinance will send a strong message that should a person choose to commit such hateful acts, the punishment will be severe.”