Intimidation by Emoji

angry-smileyI just read about an interesting legal case involving the crime of intimidation.

The situation in question involves a young girl who sent a message filled with emoji or emoticons of guns and knives to a school rival. It is not the first of its kind to reach the court system. Emoji of guns next to emoji of police officers and other such missives have been making their way through the court system of late.

Before you think the situation is completely ridiculous consider this question: If you send a message to someone saying “I will kill you” is it much different than sending a message with an emoji that looks similar to the person with a gun pointing at them? That’s what the courts are being asked to decide.

Intimidation is a tricky law to pinpoint and I’ve linked the Wikipedia article on the subject in the opening sentence of this post. Basically you can say something like, “I am going to kill you” but if the other person doesn’t have a reasonable fear that the action will be undertaken there is no intimidation. If they have that reasonable fear then it is potentially a crime.

I think it’s silly to dismiss this idea. We all know that something as simple as a wink or smiley face can completely change the meaning of the written word. These emoji can be used in an intimidating fashion.

My opinion on these sorts of legal tangles is fairly straight-forward. It comes down to a case by case examination. If the threat appeared reasonable and credible to the person intimidated they have some recourse, particularly if the intimidation changed their behavior. Let’s say a kid is afraid to go to school because of credible threats against their life, whether delivered by emoji or words.

Imagine if someone threatened you with death at work. That would be a serious situation and reasonably requiring investigation. The onus is on the person writing the words. Maybe putting a gun next to the head of an emoji of a balding, aging, white fellow that sort of looks like me might seem funny but perhaps I would not take it that way. Particularly if we had a history of troubles. If the goal was to change my behavior in some way we have a legal situation. That’s the whole point of intimidation laws.

I realize people, kids in particular, can say and do stupid things without meaning to threaten at all, I would generally err on the side of having to show a credible theat. I’d say avoid the courts and settle it with a handshake. But there are more serious situations and just because an emoji was used rather than words is no reason to ignore it.

What do you think?

Should Emoji based "threats" be treated with the same seriousness as those written with words?

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Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Ideology
Current Release: The Girl in Glass I: Apparition
Next Release: The Gray Horn

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