Signs of the Times

Dean’s Expert Testimony Illuminates Texas ‘No Guns’ Case

As anyone who’s passed the Domino Sugars sign in Baltimore knows, a sign is more than an advertisement in oversized letters and neon lights. It can represent a community’s pride, serve as a neighborhood landmark or make a societal point (as the sugar company did last year when it replaced the neon with climate-friendly LEDs).

A legal challenge now before the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas is focused on the requirements for posting “no guns” signs. A Houston coffee shop and a church claim the state law requiring property owners to post multiple signs announcing guns aren’t allowed inside privately owned establishments is onerous. Dawn Jourdan, dean of UMD’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, believes that the rules that require the posting of these signs are unfair–and is testifying to that effect.

Jourdan, trained as an urban planner and land-use attorney, aims to improve planning practices by introducing academic research on signage. Her first foray into the field was drafting a model sign code based on engineering research for the International Sign Association; she went on to found the Academic Advisory Council for Signage Research and Education, a think tank that brings together scholars to examine the role of on-premise signs on the urban landscape.

“A good sign is a product of context,” says Jourdan. How far is a business from the road? How fast does the traffic move? Is the business standalone or part of a shopping center? Is the business locally owned or does it have a nationally recognized logo? All of these factors must be considered when designing a sign, she says.

One of Jourdan’s favorites is the Western Auto sign in Kansas City, which features a circular arrow surrounding red letters spelling out the company’s name and is perched atop its former building. Though the 14-story structure is now home to loft condos, “the sign is part of the visual landscape there,” she says. “It’s part of the history of Kansas City, and so they’ve kept it. It is a beloved landmark.”

The physical attributes of signs are highly regulated. Highway signs are uniform across the country, based on research about drivers’ speed rates and what could be read at those speeds: Green ones, for example, offer guidance on exits and permitted movements, while blue ones announce weigh stations, rest stops or restaurants. Local governments regulate signs within their jurisdictions. They place constraints on sign size, materials and illumination levels, among other factors.

The Texas case, which was filed in September 2020, challenges both aesthetic and informational requirements. Private properties that want to ban guns are required to display three separate signs: Sections 30.05, 30.06 and 30.07 of the Texas Penal Code, which, respectively, ban all firearms on a property, concealed guns and open carry guns. Each of these codes must be written out in both English and Spanish, and placed near every entrance. The result is three sizable blocks of text that could interfere with the business’ sight line.

“Passersby can’t see the activity that’s happening in a store or the goods being displayed. Window shopping is limited. Potential patrons can’t see the beautiful pastry counters inside a bakery because there are signs interfering,” Jourdan says. “The police can’t see into the building for the sake of safety.”

Jourdan, an expert witness for the plaintiffs, says that a simpler requirement would be both clearer for the reader, requiring less parsing of legalese, and less punitive for the business owner. “That’s what signage is all about: creating the most easy-to-understand messages that can be understood by a lot of people very quickly,” she says.


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