Girls Invoke Emoticon Defense In Cyberbullying Case

“I’m going to kill you LOL!!!” “U R So Dead ;-)” Do those sound like threats or playful texts? A group of girls in Indiana are being accused of cyberbullying for sending their classmates threatening messages, but the girls are invoking the emoticon defense. So the question is: Does a smiley face negate a threat?

The ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of the girls last week saying that the Griffith Public School District violated the girls’ privacy rights by monitoring a conversation that happened off-campus. The ACLU also said that girls used emoticons and humorous shorthand, like LOL and ROFLMAO, which represent sarcasm.

ACLU attorney Gavin Rose told ABC in an email:

“The legal analysis asks whether a reasonable person viewing the conversation would conclude that the girls were about to inflict imminent harm. I think the use of emoticons and other forms of Internet-speak are simply one factor demonstrating that that was not the case.”

The “threatening” messages were posted on Facebook. Regina Webb, a mother of one of the victims, said that she didn’t see the humor in the threats. Webb also said that her 14-year-old daughter was afraid to go to school after seeing the remarks.

Webb also said that the girls were doing more than just making simple threats. They were using disturbing language and describing future crimes in detail. Webb said:

“When they’re talking about putting someone in a bathtub of acid and lighting someone on fire…my daughter being the last person mentioned, I find nothing funny about that. I just think that goes a little beyond joking. To me, that is calculated, that has been thought about, that has been planned.”

The emoticon defense may prove that the girl’s didn’t have the intention to harm but that doesn’t mean they won’t be charged with cyberbullying.


Justin Patchin, the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, said that cyberbullying is about emotional harm, not physical violence, and the girls could be punished if the messages were perceived as threatening.

Patchin said:

“My position is it doesn’t matter if they did use those emoticons…It doesn’t matter if the intent was to joke around…If we look at the content, would we be threatened by it? It doesn’t necessarily take an actual threat for the school to get involved in disciplining the students… If the target in this case didn’t feel safe to be at school, then the school has the authority to take action.”

What do you think of the emoticon defense? Does a smiley face negate a threat?