In the year 2002, a baby girl was born into this world and her parents intended to name her Lucía. A classic Latin name meaning u2018light', the parents decided on the name to honor the mother’s deceased grandmother. A beautiful name and a respectable homage to tradition.
Much to the couple’s surprise though, the name was refused by government authorities. The response from the state was that "Lucía" was "legally unrecordable" and therefore not acceptable as a name. The parents were given the recommendation to name the girl Lucia, without the accented í, in order to be deemed acceptable by the government gatekeepers. Unfortunately, that would have altered the pronunciation significantly. Taking the absolute freedom of naming a child for granted, one would think this story took place in China, Russia, or another country run by a totalitarian regime and infamous for government impositions on people's liberties. Maybe one of the European Union countries would come to mind, where government routinely curbs people's freedom in order to provide u2018general welfare', or so they say. In either case, my fellow Americans, the guess would be wrong. The story originates in the United States of America — the cradle of freedom and independence, where the majority of population mistakenly believes that their constitutional liberties are still intact (or at least when it comes to raising their own children).
Governments all around the world believe that they have the right to interfere in people's private decisions. Usually though, these encroachments on personal liberty can be attributed to the self-preserving interests of state power and influence. Although I vehemently disagree with gun censorship, I understand why that serves the interest of power-hungry officials seeking to inflict their will amongst free people. States love to protect their interests and gain wealth at the expense of their people’s rights. But why a baby’s name? I wouldn’t have assumed this personal decision had great appeal to a statist bureaucrat. On what constitutional grounds does government have the right to regulate the parents' freedom to name their child at all? The Founding Fathers didn't claim it, why would it be a requisite now? The reality is that these restrictions are practically universal around the world. It’s not just the case of countries such as China, where one would not expect even the most basic human rights to be respected, so the reality of having to choose from 13,000 Chinese characters, approved by the Chinese government, as opposed to 70,000 existing characters, is really just the final nail in the coffin. Most of the government restrictions on baby naming come from countries that are otherwise considered democratic.
In Germany for example, the gender must be evident from the name, and using names of objects and products is prohibited. Similarly in Portugal, the sex of the child must be recognizable beyond doubt (sorry Ashley and Pat). In Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and New Zealand, a child cannot be named anything that might result "offensive or causing discomfort to the child", which, of course, is on the official authorities to determine. In France and Spain, the name cannot be "inappropriate or out of the ordinary"; the vagueness of these adjectives is more than obvious. According to a former Norwegian law, a surname was not allowed to be used as a given name and foreign religious names such as Jesus were prohibited. Argentina doesn’t even allow names that could be considered "politically tendentious" (how convenient for the powers that be).
This leads us back to the introduction of this article and the problem of Lucía. According to the California Office of Vital Records, a parent can only choose from the 26 alphabetical characters of the English language and diacritical marks are not permissible, with the exception of hyphens, dashes and apostrophes. Not only is this a severe violation of the fundamental right of parents to name their child but it is also utterly nonsensical. The State of California officially uses diacritical marks already, as can be seen in the examples of El Capitán State Beach Park or La Purísima Mission State Historic Park, both of which the official names of California State Parks stated by the California Department of Parks and Recreation on their official parks.ca.gov website. The fact that the state officials can use the diacritics as they please but they would disallow the law-abiding citizens to use them in their names or surnames is another example of government’s priviledged hypocrisy. Just as theft is appropriately punishable between citizens , while the government has carte blanche to steal with impunity in the form of taxes. Similar logic applies to the current gun control debate. Statists demand law-abiding citizens can’t own assault rifles, but the enforcing employees of the state certainly can.
What’s worse is that these countries offer little in the way of discourse for parents to petition these laws. The process usually follows the same pattern: there is a list of given names, published by the government or accessible on the Internet. Should you choose one of these names, there will be no further obstructions in the naming process (considering that the gender recognition is maintained, etc.). If on the other hand you do wish to name your child differently, it can be, and commonly is, denied by the official authorities, in which case you do have the right to appeal to court. As long as you pay all the fees, naturally, along with hiring an attorney, requesting time off work, etc. Ultimately, the courts have their own u2018naming experts' who cast the final judgment. No jury of peers, just the determination of one employee of the State. And if it's not in your favor, there is de facto nothing to be done about it as the verdict is irrevocable.
Returning to the key questions above, what constitutional authority does government have to regulate baby names at all?
According to Carlton F.W. Larson and his research paper from January 2011 Naming Baby: The Constitutional Dimensions of Parental Naming Rights parents have a fundamental constitutional right to name their children by virtue of the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. And because these rights are fundamental, restrictions on these rights have to pass strict scrutiny, i.e. they must be justified by a compelling governmental interest, they must be narrowly tailored and they must be the least restrictive means to achieve governmental interest. The conclusions of Larson's analysis suggest that some of the laws and restrictions currently employed are unconstitutional and the state has no right to invoke them.
The birth certificates were first introduced in the late 19th century and naming restrictions followed soon after. The state of Massachusetts was the first to require birth registration and government control over parental naming permeated immensely thereafter. As it stands today, consider the following a very brief summary of existing naming laws applied, to various extents, throughout the US (by no means exhaustive from state to state):
- Certain surname restrictions
- Requirement of at least two names
- Prohibition of numbers
- Prohibition of pictograms and ideograms
- Prohibition of diacritic
- Restrictions of length
- Prohibition of obscenity and vulgarisms
The current state of parental naming laws could be summarized as a sphere of absolute chaos. In the tangles of inconsistent state laws, regulations and public notices, it is difficult not only to find a specific rule, but also identify the corresponding authority.
Naming one's child is one of the most personal intimate decisions most people make in their lives. And let's face it, some of the names might be considered u2018stupid' or u2018absurd' by majority of outsiders. Despite this notion, though, there is no ground for the government to get involved. The role of the authorities is not to judge people's intelligence or sense of reality, despite what they might think. They're not the saviors of individual integrity and protectors of all the well-being, but they certainly are acting that way. In the ocean of Recoveries, Reliefs, Creations and Affordable Acts, it is easy to neglect minor topics as naming rights might seem. But if you think you can still take absolute American freedom for granted, think again next time you want to do something as seemingly routine as to name your baby with an accent.
Lucie Strachonova Wisco [send her mail] was born and raised in the small town of Slavkov within the eastern region of the Czech Republic. She holds Masters Degrees in Education and Psychology, & English Language and Literature from Masaryk University, and is currently the Editor of the etymology website BabyNames.net. She immigrated to U.S. in 2008 where she lives happily with her husband, and pursues her writing passions.