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Should I Use Emojis in Court?

An emoji is worth a thousand words, and that's a legal problem.

According to a Santa Clara University Law School professor, emojis and emoticons have popped up recently in at least 80 U.S. court opinions. The problem is they can be misunderstood.

"As emoticons and emojis play an increasingly important role in how we communicate with each other, they will increasingly raise legal issues," says professor Eric Goldman.

Emoji Dictionary

In researching emojis in the law, Goldman found many references but few visual depictions of emojis. Legal databases generally do not search for images.

Goldman said emojis should be searchable on databases such as Westlaw to simplify legal research. Lawyers, judges, and even juries need an emoji dictionary to clear-up miscommunication, especially when evaluating evidence.

"[E]xcluding emojis from the factfinder's consideration usually should be the worst choice," he said. "It strips the messages of essential content and meaning."

For example, a smiley face emoji can give words an entirely different meaning -- changing them from serious to silly.

Emojis in Court?

In one case, a Bay Area high school student tweeted that she would shoot up her school -- all the while sprinkling her messages with smiley and laughing emojis. She was charged and convicted of making felony threats.

The court found anger and intent to terrorize behind the emojis, but that was based more on the court's interpretation of words and not the images.

Goldman said emojis give people another way to express emotions that are not possible with text. The judicial system, and lawyers in their pleadings, need to learn how to deal with them.

"Knowing where our online communications are going, we have the opportunity to build the necessary infrastructure -- both doctrinal and technological -- to prepare for the coming emoji onslaught," he said.

So, should you ever use emojis in your law practice? Definitely don't do so without considering possible issues of miscommunication. Until there's a proper, searchable emoji dictionary and a consensus for when and how emojis should be used, it's safest to stick to good old fashioned words.

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