CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- A magistrate judge in Newport, Tenn., made national headlines last weekend when she took it upon herself to rename a 7-month old baby, whose parents appeared before her at a child support hearing, to resolve a dispute over the child’s surname. The baby’s given name was “Messiah DeShawn Martin.” Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew spontaneously changed it to “Martin DeShawn McCullough” (McCullough is the father’s name), explaining that although there was no dispute about the child’s first name before the court, “The word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ.”
According to the Social Security Administration, “Messiah” was in the top 400 baby names for 2012. (Nearly 4,000 babies were named “Jesus”; about 500 were named “Mohammed”; and 29 were named “Christ.”) The ACLU, pointing out that the judge cannot impose her religious faith on others, has offered to assist the baby’s mother, Jaleesa Martin, in an appeal of the judge’s order.
Ballew ordered that the baby’s birth certificate be changed because, as she explained, she was taking his Christian community into account and “I thought out into the future,” and the name “could put him at odds with a lot of people.” Her decision seems nutty on its face, and will no doubt be overturned, but it’s a reminder of how much freedom Americans truly enjoy when it comes to naming their children.
In many Western democracies, it’s not at all unusual for a judge to weigh in on a baby’s name, if there is reason to believe the child is at risk of bullying or abuse. For starters, in New Zealand you can’t give your child a moniker that might cause offense to a “reasonable” person. “Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii” is perhaps the most famous name that’s been judicially blocked in New Zealand, but so were the rather charming “Fish” and “Chips” (for twins). (”Messiah” was also blocked in New Zealand, for whatever that’s worth.)
Sweden is also notorious for its strict baby naming laws, famously blocking the names “Metallica,” “IKEA,” and “Veranda,” as well as “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116” (pronounced “Albin”). In Norway they tossed a woman in jail for two days for naming her son “Gesher” (which means “Bridge” in Hebrew) after it appeared to her in a dream. In Denmark parents must select from one of 7,000 or so names preapproved by the government, with room to appeal for special circumstances.
Ditto for Iceland, where a teen is suing the government to reinstate her name, which means, benignly, “Light Breeze.” In Germany the child’s gender must be immediately obvious by the first name, and the name selected cannot “negatively affect the wellbeing of the child.” Last names or the names of objects or products may not be used as first names in Germany. In Japan you must pick a baby name from one of several thousand accepted “name kanjis.” And in China you may not name your child “,” thus ending his fledgling Twitter career before it begins. A judge in the Dominican Republic banned the name “Dear Pineapple.” Which is probably for the best. Spain prohibits “extravagant” or “improper” names. French authorities may reject first names that are contrary to the welfare of the child. In short, the notion that judges can intercede to change a baby’s name to protect her from bad consequences later in life may shock the heck out of Americans but it is remarkably common worldwide.
Here in the USA, there are no official lists of approved names, and parents aren’t tossed into jail for running afoul of a naming law or even for naming their kid something epically stupid. However, state laws do govern what a baby can be named. In a 2011 study of the law of parental naming rights in the United States, University of California-Davis law professor Carlton F.W. Larson found that under New Jersey law, parents have almost complete freedom to name their children as they see fit, although the “State Registrar may reject a name that contains an obscenity, numerals, symbols or a combination of letters, numerals or symbols, or a name that is illegible.”
This study came after a New Jersey father attracted masses of unwanted media attention in 2008 when he got into a fight with a local grocery store that refused to frost the birthday cake for his then-3-year-old son, Adolf Hitler Campbell. (Heath Campbell, the Nazi father, lost custody for several other reasons, and not because his son was named “Adolf Hitler Campbell” and his daughters were named “JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell” and “Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell.”)
But not all states are like New Jersey. As professor Larson goes on to show, some states, including California, do restrict baby names, quite dramatically as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Louis Freedberg learned in October 2012, when he tried to name his infant daughter “Lucia.” California’s Office of Vital Records permits only “the 26 alphabetical characters of the English language with appropriate punctuation if necessary” barring “pictographs, ideograms, (or) diacritical marks.” Several states either administratively or statutorily ban ideograms or pictograms as names. And yes, as Larson notes, that means the symbol denoting the Artist Formerly Known as Prince would be out in some jurisdictions.
You can spell out numbers, but in New Jersey and Texas you can’t use numerical symbols, with the exception of Roman numerals. In Massachusetts the first, last, and middle names can be no longer than 40 characters each. New Jersey and Nebraska ban obscenities. Tennessee, where baby Messiah faces a name-ectomy, is one of several states that has little to say about an infant’s first name and a good deal to say about a baby’s surname, and where there’s no reason to believe judges can spontaneously change names based on religious conviction.
Larson’s legal question is a simple one: To what extent should state law constitutionally regulate the names that American parents may give their children? He argues that the right to name one’s child is doubtless a fundamental one implicit in the cases recognizing parental rights over their children’s upbringing, and also expressive activity protected under the First Amendment. But he goes on to suggest that U.S. law can accommodate a legal regime under which the most horrifying names might be limited under some circumstances.
Indeed Larson’s law review article provides a breathtaking taxonomy of brutalizing American baby names across history, ranging from the Puritans’ delectable “Fear-Not” to the more recent “Ghoul Nipple.” One governor of South Carolina named his son “States Rights.” (He died.) The baby called “Loyal Lodge No. 296 Knights of Pythias Ponca City Oklahoma Territory” must have been extremely hard to call in to dinner. Modern hideous American baby names on record include “Toilet Queen,” “Leper,” “Loser,” “Fat Meat,” “Cash Whoredom,” “Tiny Hooker,” “Giant Pervis,” and “Acne Fountain.” “Demon,” “Satan” and “Hell” are not at all uncommon.
One of the most comprehensive cases on the constitutional right to choose a name for your own child without government interference came from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 1989 appeal of a Nebraska law barring parents from selecting a surname other than their own for their child. The two judges in the majority found no fundamental constitutional right to select a child’s name. The dissenter, Judge Richard Sheppard Arnold, wrote that parents enjoy a fundamental right to name their own children, finding such a right, “if anything, more personal and intimate, less likely to affect people outside the family” and that “there is something sacred about a name. It is our own business, not the government’s.”
Putting aside Judge Ballew’s wildly inappropriate religious rationale for demanding that baby Messiah be renamed, there is nevertheless a legitimate question about whether Americans are too speech- and parental rights-protective when it comes to truly abusive baby names. At least in some cases — Adolf Hitler Campbell and his sisters being prominent examples — might it not be in the state’s interest to step in and afford a defenseless baby a fighting chance to not someday be beat up on the playground? The New Zealand judge who ordered that Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii have her name changed memorably wrote that such a name “makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability and handicap.” Professor Larson cites numerous studies concluding that people with unusual first names show “more severe personality disturbance than those with common names” and reporting that having weird first names correlates to higher instances of delinquency in youth.
Is there some role for American courts to play in policing the very worst baby names? One legal scholar cited in Larson’s article has put forth statutory language providing that “Parents may give a child any given names on which they agree as long as the names do not defraud or otherwise operate to create injustice.” Which might leave “Adolf Hitler” or “Acne Fountain” as acceptable. Professor Larson suggests language that would allow the state to reject a proposed name if “there is an overwhelming likelihood that the name will pose serious and lasting harm to the child’s emotional wellbeing and social development,” with the right to immediate review in a court. It’s an intriguing place to start the discussion. But it’s also precisely what Judge Ballew was claiming she was doing when she changed “Messiah” to “Martin” last week, explaining that “it could put him at odds with a lot of people.”
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.