In the 1955 book Harold and Purple Crayon, the title character has the power to bring imaginary worlds to life using his purple crayon. In Georgia, property owners may soon have the power to bring their imaginary fences to life using purple paint. Currently, one commits criminal trespass in Georgia by knowingly entering the property of another after receiving notice that entry is forbidden. This notice is usually in the form of a fence, a “No Trespassing” sign, or both. Well a bill in the Georgia Legislature would allow property owners to paint purple lines on their property instead of posting cumbersome signs or building high-maintenance physical barriers.
Children are, of course, taught from an early age that the color purple means “keep out.” This is one of those universal symbols that ties us together as Americans, or rather, ensures we can take legal action in case someone gets too close. It therefore only makes sense to allow property owners to utilize this symbol as a legal means of warning others not to trespass.
Most of us can agree that we shouldn’t be forced to build fences around our property just to keep people off our land. While they provide immediate notice to others not to enter, maintenance and construction is expensive, they prevent wildlife from freely moving across lands, and they bolster the concept that everything in our society should be physically divided based on ownership. Signs share many of the maintenance issues associated with fences, but are also indiscernible to non-English speakers and can be an eyesore in an otherwise natural landscape.
Adopting a more permanent and universal “no trespassing” symbol is an intriguing idea. It would largely solve the maintenance issues that come with fences and signs, while overcoming their respective barriers related to wildlife and language. However, the symbol’s lack of linguistic or physical context clues could be its downfall. Without a widespread initiative to educate the populace on the meaning of our newfound universal symbol, it may fail to provide adequate notice to potential accidental trespassers.
Senate Bill 159 seemingly allows property owners to satisfy their notice burden by painting purple lines (of at least 8 inches in length and 1 inch in width) three to five feet above the ground in reasonably visible areas, but not more than 100 feet apart in forested areas and 1,000 feet apart in unforested areas. If the bill is passed, one would now be committing criminal trespass if they knowingly, and without authority, enter the land of another that has been marked according to those stipulations.
While choosing this arbitrary visual attribute as a replacement for fences and signs seems random at first glance, there are several reasons why the Georgia Legislature is pursuing this new practice. Arkansas started using purple lines back in 1989 and about a dozen other states including North Carolina and Texas have joined in on the purple craze. But there are other reasons for choosing this color to convey a cautionary message among the trees. The U.S. Forest Service currently does not use the color in their arsenal, the wavelength is visible to those who are color blind, and it stands out in the natural landscape. While those are certainly good reasons for choosing that particular color, they aren’t good reasons for replacing more obvious notification methods like fences and “No Trespassing” signs. At least until the color’s meaning is as widely understood as the triad of the traffic signal.
Finding alternatives to unsightly signs and damage-prone fences is something that should be explored. But making criminals out of people who do not understand the state’s new arbitrary symbology scheme is a step in the wrong direction. While determining property boundaries may be fairly easy for people walking around in urban areas (though this is not always true), it can be much more difficult for people hiking, hunting, or fishing in national forests or wildlife management areas where private land is often dispersed throughout large swaths of public land.
Experienced hikers and outdoorsmen will quickly learn the new rules, but the same cannot necessarily be said for the novice hiker or fisherman. If we are going to adopt a universal symbol for private property then the adoption should be accompanied by a proportionately large-scale campaign to educate residents. Notifications should be posted in all public lands and the state should embark on an advertising campaign to reach residents via major news sources and popular media platforms.
Update March 31, 2017. The bill passed the Georgia Senate 48-0, but failed to leave committee in the Georgia House. It is therefore dead and must be reconsidered next session.