Prison Warden Says: ‘Lock The Emojis Up.’ Court Replies: ‘Free the Emojis’–Taliani v. Dortch

Prisoners have limited free speech rights. Among other things, their outgoing written communications are typically reviewed before sending. The Hill Correctional Center in Illinois bans prisoners from sending “coded” messages that the reviewers can’t understand. (I imagine other prisons have this policy too, but they aren’t defendants in this case).

While I can understand the point of a policy against coded messages, the prison has interpreted the policy to ban all “symbols,” i.e., anything other than letters, numbers, and punctuation. That means that emojis are categorically not permitted in emails sent by prisoners (though I wonder if emoticons would be?).

In this case, two of the plaintiff’s emails were stopped because they contained heart emojis. The court says this interpretation of the policy may violate the prisoner’s First Amendment rights. As a result, the prisoner’s complaint survived an initial merits review and can proceed.

Of course, a heart emoji could constitute a coded message–every type of communication, including words, is capable of coded meanings. At the same time, many uses of the heart emoji would be completely understandable in context by any reasonable reviewer. In those situations, a categorical ban of the heart emoji would be overreaching. #FreeTheEmojis. ❤

Case citation: Taliani v. Dortch, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64067 (C.D. Ill. April 12, 2023)