A Tennessee judge recently ordered an infant’s name changed from “Messiah” to “Martin.” Eugene Volokh expects the case to be reversed on appeal. Dahlia Lithwick reads the “baby Messiah” case as “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 pre-approved 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 short, the notion that judges can intercede to change a baby’s name in order to protect her from bad consequences later in life may shock the heck out of Americans but it is remarkably common worldwide.
Keli Goff notes that – contra Louis C.K. – America actually has several laws regulating baby names:
But such laws (pdf) are regulated by the state, not at the federal level, and there is absolutely no continuity regarding what is and is not allowed. “Some states restrict things like obscenities, numerals, pictograms and/or diacritical marks. Other states impose no prohibitions at all,” [attorney Lawrence Walters] said. Louisiana and Tennessee require that the father’s last name be listed as the surname of the child if a couple is married. Iowa and Massachusetts limit how long names can be. Connecticut and Kentucky have no restrictions, while New Jersey prohibits numerals. It is worth noting that no states restrict names on the basis of meaning. So in New Jersey, where little Hitler lives, his parents would have been restricted from naming him “8,” but “Hitler” is OK.