Debra Katz was trying to interpret a horse and a muffin emoticon when her client who was suing for sexual harassment at her work place translated it to mean “stud muffin.” Studies show that emoticons aka emojis have become a part of modern communication and while we use them as a harmless adjunct to our text messages, courts are willing to consider these in interpreting legal issues.
An Israeli court awarded a landlord 8000 shekels (approximately $2200 USD) as damages and legal fees and admitted in evidence a series of emojis to interpret the intention in the text message. A smiley face, comet, champagne bottle, dancing playboy bunnies and a chipmunk strung together in a text message caused the landlord (plaintiff) to believe that the prospective tenants (defendants) had agreed to rent his apartment and he took down the advertisement. When the defendants stopped responding to further communication, the plaintiff sued them. The Israeli contract law places a duty on parties to negotiate in good faith, regardless of whether a contract is formed and a breach of this duty may give rise to damages. This is exactly the position adopted by the Judge Amir Weizebbluth of the Herzliya Small Claims Court who stated that the emojis icons indicated the intention of the defendants. Similarly, a court in South Carolina convicted a man for stalking for sending an “emoji threat” where he sent a fist, pointed finger and a hospital emoji. So far, cases of defamation, breach of contract, stalking, terrorism, discrimination at employment and sexual harassment containing emojis have successfully been used by courts in interpreting the context.
Some academics and lawyers feel compelled to address the challenges and legal implications in relying on emojis to decode human intentions. For instance, cultural differences may impact the interpretation of these symbols for the sender and receiver. Technological difficulties may also pose a challenge as the appearance of an emoji may be altered depending on the device used. The confusion in interpreting some of the emojis is also easily relatable, for instance, what appears to be the hug emoji can also be interpreted as ‘jazz hands.’ However, with emojis quickly replacing our writing abilities, their wide usage is undeniable and we can expect courts to be confronted with more ‘emoji cases’. In the meantime, one might want to think twice before sending fruits and vegetable emojis to co-workers?