A magistrate judge in Newport, Tenn., made national headlines 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 childs surname.
The babys given name was Messiah DeShawn Martin. Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew spontaneously changed it to Martin DeShawn McCullough (McCullough is the fathers name), explaining that although there was no dispute about the childs first name, The word Messiah is a title, and its 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 babys mother, Jaleesa Martin, in an appeal.
Ballew said that she was taking his Christian community into account and that the name could put him at odds with a lot of people. Her decision seems nutty and will no doubt be overturned, but its a reminder of how much freedom Americans truly enjoy.
In many Western democracies, its not unusual for a judge to weigh in on a babys name if there is reason to believe the child is at risk of bullying. In New Zealand, you cant 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 thats 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 thats worth.)
In Germany the childs gender must be 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. 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.
Here in the USA, there are no official lists of approved names, and parents arent tossed into jail for running afoul of a naming law or even for naming a kid something epically stupid. Some states, however, do restrict baby names, quite dramatically as the San Francisco Chronicles Louis Freedberg learned when he tried to name his daughter Luçia. Californias Office of Vital Records permits only the 26 alphabetical characters of the English language with appropriate punctuation if necessary. Several states either administratively or statutorily ban ideograms or pictograms as names.
You can spell out numbers, but in New Jersey and Texas you cant 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.
University of California-Davis law professor Carlton F.W. Larson argues that the right to name ones child is doubtless a fundamental one and also expressive activity protected under the First Amendment. But he suggests that U.S. law can accommodate a legal regime under which the most horrifying names might be limited.
Indeed, a law review article by Larson 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.
Putting aside Judge Ballews inappropriate religious rationale for demanding that baby Messiah be renamed, there is a legitimate question about whether Americans are too protected when it comes to giving out truly abusive baby names. At least in some cases, might it not be in the states interest to step in and afford a defenseless baby a fighting chance not to someday be beat up? 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. 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.
One legal scholar Larson cites 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. 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 childs emotional wellbeing and social development.
Its an intriguing place to start the discussion. But its also precisely what Ballew was claiming she was doing when she changed Messiah to Martin, explaining that it could put him at odds with a lot of people.
Washington Post News Service
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.