"Decoding Emojis in the Legal Landscape: Challenges and Strategies"

Apr 19, 2023

In recent years, courts have seen a rise in cases involving emojis in contract disputes, criminal cases, workplace harassment, intellectual property, and even defamation cases. The prevalence of emojis in digital communication has led to situations where intent, consent, or threats are expressed through these small icons, leaving room for misinterpretation and potential legal consequences.

To navigate these challenges, attorneys must stay informed of the evolving jurisprudence surrounding emojis and be prepared to address complex interpretative issues that may arise. Developing a comprehensive understanding of the cultural and contextual meanings of emojis, as well as staying up-to-date with technological advancements and case law, is key in effectively advocating for clients in the digital age.

Depending on the source you consult, “emoji” can mean many different things. For example, Merriam-Webster focuses on the representative nature of emojis: “[e]moji are a contemporary hieroglyphic script that consists of characters representing facial expressions, objects, animals, and more, and are commonly used in text messages and social media.” Other definitions, such as the Oxford Dictionary, focus less on description and more on meaning be defining emojis as an “expression of ideas and emotions.”

The differences in these definitions is immensely important. If a court were to adopt the Merriam-Webster definition, an emoji is taken as a simple pictorial representation of a real-world object without inherent or implicit meaning. In a New York indictment, a grand jury refused to indict a teenager, Osiris Aristy, for Facebook posts that contained an emoji of a police officer and three-gun emoji pointing at it. The grand jury’s refusal to indict the defendant was apparently due to a lack of clear intent. Simlarly in Lightstone v. Zinntex, 2021 N.Y. Slip Op. 32710 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2021), a New York civil court determined a “thumbs up” emoji in response to text messages regarding settlement terms was insufficient evidence to conclude there was intent to be bound by the terms.

However, if a court adopts the second definition, as most have, emojis can represent any number of thoughts, feelings, or emotions. Iowa courts appear to be leaning toward this more ambiguous definition. There is no set legal definition in Iowa yet, but the Supreme Court came close in State v. McBride, 889 N.W.2d 700 (Iowa Ct. App. 2016). In a footnote, the Court defined emoji as “a series of symbols that represent emotions and other abstract ideas.”

The Iowa Supreme Court has also peripherally addressed the use of emojis in the civil context. In Bauer v. Brinkman, 958 N.W.2d 194 (Iowa 2021), the plaintiff, Richard Bauer, filed a defamation lawsuit against Bradley Brinkman over a Facebook comment in which Brinkman called Bauer a "slumlord." Bauer’s post included a grinning emoji. The post stated “[i]t is because of [sit] like this that I need to run for mayor!” followed by a grinning emoji, and that Bauer is a “PIECE OF [SIT]!!!” before calling him a slumlord. On review of the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendant, the Iowa Supreme Court determined the grinning emoji indicated the post was rhetorical hyperbole. The post was an opinion and therefore not defamatory. As in the McBride case, the Court was amenable to reading meaning into the emoji at issue in this case.

Iowa, like many other courts, has at least left open the possibility that emojis can have implicit meaning beyond simple hieroglyphics. While no court has adopted a definite framework for interpreting emojis, scholars have considered the issue and proposed a method to assess the emoji in the context. Kirley and McMahon suggest the following factors be used to interpret emojis:

  • Emoji Choice: the methods used by an actor to select the particular emoji at issue
  • Placement in Relation to Text and Other Emoji: the positioning of an emoji within the text as a whole
  • Purpose of the Communication: the occasion that prompts a particular message
  • Cultural Cues: the different ways that certain social groups tend to use emojis
  • Individual Factors: idiosyncratic use of emojis in other conversations, posts, etc.

These factors provide a starting point for evaluating the meaning of an emoji within the larger context of the message or messages.

As the legal landscape adapts to the growing presence of emojis in various aspects of the law, it is essential for legal professionals to be proactive in addressing the potential implications of emojis and other digital forms of communication in their cases. This will help ensure that the justice system remains fair and effective in the face of rapidly changing communication trends.

At Community Law Office, we pride ourselves on being up to date on legal trends and issues. To schedule a consultation, call (319) 200-7050 or click here.