Courts Have to Deal With Varying Meanings of Emoticons

We all know that like any writing, text messages are binding and admissible, and on numerous occasions, judges have made crucial decisions based on admitting text messages as evidence. Although text messages are not new, the law usually takes some time to catch up to technology. A fascinating recent case out of Michigan is once again requiring a court to interpret a new way that we communicate.

Man Sues Based on Emoticon

The case involves a Michigan law student who sent what appeared to be abusive and harassing text messages to a college student. The state prosecutor investigated the matter but refused to prosecute. Then, the student took the offensive, suing the school for harassment and claiming the investigation was without cause.

The student claimed that his text message should never have been construed as harassing, because at the end of the messages, he included an emoticon that looked like “:-P,” a symbol that, according to the student, conveys sarcasm, or otherwise relays to the receiver that the sender is not serious about what is being written.

Thus, the Court will have to decide what the meaning of “:-P” actually is—an interpretation that many lay people often do not understand.

Supreme Court Taking Up Issue

This is not the only time a court has had to determine the meaning of an emoticon. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case involving a man who allegedly threatened his wife in a Facebook post, but who claimed that the threat was in jest. The poster argued that the post was actually rap lyrics, as was indicated by an emoticon at the end of the post, and that his first amendment rights protects his words.

Many of these cases hinge on whether intent matters. Even if an emoticon “lessens” the impact of written words, many criminal laws say that if the receiver (or an objective person) could reasonably interpret the words as threatening, they are illegal. The Supreme Court will determine whether that standard violates someone’s first amendment free speech rights.

Jury Will Often Decide Meanings

In many cases, it will be a jury that will read and interpret the meaning of emails and emoticons. Some may be familiar with their meaning and others may not.

There may even be disputes over whether emoticons get read to a jury or not. Because of the vague and ambiguous interpretations, many prosecutors may seek to shield emoticons from being seen by jurors during a trial.

Just as sarcasm or jesting often does not show through in electronic media, neither does the meaning of an emoticon. A juror could just as easily interpret 😛 as mocking and threatening, as opposed to indicating something is said in jest. Because criminal defendants often do not testify, as is their fifth amendment right, there may be nobody to interpret what an emoticon actually means.

If you are charged with a crime, make sure that the evidence you need is used to your advantage. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your rights.