Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
By Nicholas Parsons
Nicholas Parsons is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.
Should a set of adults be allowed to name their child whatever they desire? Our First Amendment right to free speech is a fundamental, inalienable freedom which extends to numerous external applications. But how much liberty do we have when it comes to naming ourselves, or our children? There, the answer is less clear. Here in America, numerous states have regulations that add limits to the types of names that can be given, for a variety of reasons. However, oftentimes the lines are blurred. In some states, the law is vague; in others, seemingly arbitrary; and in a few others, simply nonexistent.
Take, for instance, a very recent case of a child in Georgia. Two parents, Elizabeth Handy and Bilal Walk, wanted to give their daughter the surname “Allah”, because to them, it is “noble.” Despite the fact that the state of Georgia accepted that surname for their two other children, they said that this particular child would not be allowed to have that as a last name. Georgia contended that the girl’s last name “must match one of the parents - or be a combination of the two.”  This presents several very real problems for the daughter. Because of the state’s refusal to issue a birth certificate, the child cannot receive a Social Security number, is unable to enroll in school, and is barred from numerous other privileges as a result of Georgia’s decision.
On the flip side, numerous names are allowed which could potentially be harmful to the child, or offensive to outsiders. An example of such a scenario can be seen in New Jersey, where a family named their children with explicit references to Nazi Germany. Or in New York, where a child was named after a venereal disease. [2,3] So why is that a child can be named after these, but in the case of changing a child’s surname to something positive with spiritual relevance, it’s not allowed? In the case of New Jersey naming laws, the only naming exception is that the state “may reject a name that contains an obscenity, numerals, symbols, or a combination of letters, numerals, or symbols, or a name that is illegible.”  In New York, laws are similarly ill-defined: according to the state, a child’s name can be changed for “‘no reasonable objection,’ as long as the child's interests ‘will be substantially promoted by the change.’” 
In still other states, common names such as “José” or “Lucía” are not allowed. In California, these names cannot be put on a child’s birth certificate because their Office of Vital Records cannot use diacritical marks in their records system.  In addition, many states have rules against using numerals in names, including New Jersey, Illinois, and Texas.
Because of the vagueness of these regulations, the laws can even seem contradictory. In the case of the child from Georgia, the ACLU pointed out another state law governing names, which implies that a surname can be chosen “as designated by both parents.”  It is even the case that in some scenarios, a child can be born without a name. Connecticut, Michigan, and Nevada are some such states. 
It is clear from this collection of remarkable and sometimes paradoxical naming laws that regulations on naming children are poorly conceived. Although some potentially offensive names are allowed, normal ones such as “José” can be rejected. The ambiguity of the law, in instances such as the case of the family in Georgia, can bring about lawsuits over whether parents have the right to name their child what they wish.
Because naming law is not as high-stakes as other branches of law, it may be that these vague regulations will stay as they are for quite some time. However, if they were ever to be fixed, the first step may be to standardize them. If each state adopted similar regulations, there would be less room for interpretation, and therefore less room for unfairness or misinterpretation. Alternatively, perhaps in the future naming laws will be dropped completely, if the First Amendment or the Due Process clause of the Constitution are eventually interpreted in such a way as to allow the assignment of any and all names to a child.
 Victor, Daniel. "Parents Sue Georgia Over Right to Give Daughter the Surname ‘Allah’." The New York Times. March 29, 2017. Accessed March 30, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/29/us/georgia-couple-lawsuit-surname-allah.html?_r=0.
 Larson, Carlton F. W. "Naming Baby: The Constitutional Dimensions of Parental Naming Rights." The George Washington Law Review. 80, no. 1, 159-269. Accessed March 30, 2017. http://www.gwlr.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/80-1-Larson.pdf.
 Foderaro, Lisa W. "Naming Children for Nazis Puts Spotlight on the Father." The New York Times. January 19, 2009. Accessed March 30, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/20/nyregion/20hitler.html.
 "Whose Surname Should a Child Have?" Findlaw. Accessed March 30, 2017. http://supreme.findlaw.com/legal-commentary/whose-surname-should-a-child-have.html.
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.