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Kids Are Facing Criminal Charges for Using Emoji

Feb 29, 2016

Emojis are quickly becoming the language of the Internet, but with that power comes a raft of new legal issues. Cases are beginning to emerge in which police charge people — often kids — for using emoji in ways that they deem threatening.

According to a Washington Post feature on the subject, a 12-year-old girl in Fairfax, Va. was charged with threatening her school and computer harassment because she posted a message on Instagram that included a bomb, knife and gun emojis and the phrase “meet me in the Library.”

Fairfax County Schools ultimately concluded the threat was not credible, but the outcome of the case in juvenile court is unclear.

In a separate New York case last year, a teen was charged with making a terrorist threat after he wrote a Facebook post that included three gun emojis pointing at the head of a police officer emoji. The teen ultimately was not indicted on the charge.

The incidents illustrate that law enforcement are only just beginning to figure out how to interpret emoji. A single symbol can often mean different things depending on the context in which it is used, and new ones are being added to the popular lexicon every year.

“You understand words in a particular way,” Dalia Topelson Ritvo, assistant director of the Cyber Law clinic at Harvard Law School, told the Post. “It’s challenging with symbols and images to unravel that.”

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