Emojis, small pictures texters can insert into their their messages, have become virtually ubiquitous, but now the courts will be forced to grapple with the question of what an emoji really means - and whether or not it can constitute a threat.
A 12-year-old girl from Fairfax, Virginia, has been charged with threatening her school after she allegedly posted a message on Instagram in December that included bomb, knife and gun emojis and the phrase “meet me in the library Tuesday,” The Washington Post reported.
According to a search warrant, the girl, who attends Sidney Lanier Middle School, admitted to the authorities that she posted the message on Instagram using another student’s name. Although the threat wasn’t deemed credible, the authorities have not disclosed what the motive could’ve been.
The girl’s mother, who also hasn’t been identified, claimed her daughter was being bullied. “She’s a good kid. She’s never been in trouble before,” the mother said. “I don’t think it’s a case where there should have been charges.”
However, there are some that argue that the pre-teen could be in serious trouble. Freelance journalist Fletcher Babb told Mashable that he faced emoji-based threats from a purported drug dealer. Legal experts argued that it could have been interpreted as a threat in court, although Babb didn't press charges. "When law enforcement investigates, they have to determine whether a person would have been reasonably threatened,” said Justin Patchin, Ph.D., a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.
There’s currently no established protocol for how Emojis and emoticons are presented to the court, but it’s been established that making threats online using text are comparable to those made in the real world. "If someone makes a death threat, online or offline, there's no difference in the way it's treated," said Bradley Shear, a Maryland-based attorney specializing in social media and Internet law. "Whatever laws exist in the real world are usually applied to a threat in the digital world.”
Dalia Topelson Ritvo, assistant director of the Cyber Law clinic at Harvard Law School, argued that cases like the one unfolding in Fairfax is often dependent on context. “You understand words in a particular way,” she explained. “It’s challenging with symbols and images to unravel that.”
In the meantime, the girl is awaiting trial in juvenile court.