Emojis in the Court of Law: Avoiding Ambiguity in Workplace Communication

How emojis can create legal issues

By Benjy Schirm, J.D. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on December 7, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Jon Pfeiffer

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In today’s fast-moving world, we want to say whatever we can as fast as we can. This means we often employ truncated spellings of words or entire phrases in text messages, as well as emojis—those pictures of emotions and objects found on nearly every device and social media platform. 

“Emojis are interesting because context creates the message,” says Santa Monica attorney Jon Pfeiffer. “The ways in which you communicate with your friends may have different meanings to someone outside of that group.”

Anytime we exchange ideas, it requires interpretation. But with an entirely new symbolic language thrown into the mix, communicating can become laced with confusing signals, and things can get dicey—fast. And when things get dicey, litigation is often not far behind. One notable case involved a 12-year-old in Virginia who faced criminal charges for sending what was deemed to be a threat to her school via knife, bomb, and gun emojis.

“I had a case with two producers,” says Pfeiffer. “One party had been texting with a potential hire that was sexual in nature. There were explicit texts that—and I’ve been doing this for a while—made me cringe. And the response [by my client] was a smooch. They argued consent, and we are arguing she was trying to put him off. [Emojis] can be taken many ways, for better or worse.”

Emojis are interesting because context creates the message… We’ve all received an email or a text that’s made us say, ‘I’m not sure how to take that. Is [this grinning face] snarky or just a joke?’ There are all sorts of definitions for all of these things. Therein lies the ambiguity. “There is no universal definition. No court has ruled that a smiley face with crying means this and only this

Jon Pfeiffer

Emojis Aren’t Necessarily a Universal Language

Research has shown that emojis elicit mirrored emotional responses, leading some to believe that they may be a more accurate form of communication. However, Pfeiffer says, emojis can add more ambiguity when used as substitutes for words. And ambiguity can create difficulty in rendering court opinions in legal cases.

“The problem is in the subtlety,” says Pfeiffer. “We’ve all received an email or a text that’s made us say, ‘I’m not sure how to take that. Is [this grinning face] snarky or just a joke?’ There are all sorts of definitions for all of these things. Therein lies the ambiguity.

“There is no universal definition. No court has ruled that a smiley face with crying means this and only this,” Pfeiffer adds. “They have only been around for the last [couple of decades], so it makes sense that we are just feeling our way through it.”

Handling Emojis in Business Communications

Pfeiffer’s advice about using emojis in important business communications can be summed up in one contraction: Don’t.

“If it’s an important conversation, resort to emails,” he says. “For the heavy lifting, rely on your email or, god forbid, pick up the telephone.”

If you’re an employee on the receiving end of inappropriate communications that have left you confused or uncomfortable, consult with a reputable and experienced attorney who can provide legal advice and defend your right to a safe workplace. For more information about this area, see our overviews on sexual harassment and employment litigation.

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