By Eugene Volokh
Posted Wednesday, July 30, 2008, at 7:13 AM ET
What's in a name? Child abuse?
Everyone needs a hobby. Mine is Fun Name Change Cases. I first got hooked 15 years ago, when I read about Michael Herbert Dengler, who wanted to change his name to 1069. "The only way [my] identity can be expressed is 1069," he insisted. Twice. To state supreme courts. With an elaborate theory for each digit: For instance, "The third character, 6, is equal to the relationship I have with the universe in my understanding of space of my spatial occupancy through this life." Now this was a field of law to watch, I knew.
Then came the news last week about Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii, a 9-year-old New Zealand girl. A New Zealand Family Court judge apparently viewed this name as a form of child abuse—the girl had complained that "[s]he fears being mocked and teased" about it—and asserted legal custody over the child so as "to ensure that a proper name was found for her."
Now that this has been validated as a matter of global legal significance, I present the following brief work of legal scholarship. Would-be 1069s and Talulas Do the Hulas, here are the precedents:
1. 1069. No dice. The North Dakota Supreme Court (1976) and Minnesota Supreme Court (1979) both say: Names can't be numbers. [Petition of Dengler, 246 N.W.2d 758 (N.D. 1976); Application of Dengler, 287 N.W.2d 637 (Minn. 1979).]
2. III, to be pronounced "Three." Nope, on the same grounds, said the California Court of Appeal in 1984 to Thomas Boyd Ritchie III. A concurring judge asserted that the problem was that III was a symbol, rather than just that it was a number. Such subtle distinctions are what law is all about. [In re Ritchie, 159 Cal. App. 3d 1070 (1984).]
3. Mary R. No, decided the Pennsylvania Superior Court in 2000, dealing with a petition by Mary Ravitch, who no longer wanted to use her ex-husband's last name and who didn't want to return to her maiden name (Gon). "Appellant's desired surname is so bizarre that it would likely be met with repeated suspicion and distrust in both business and social settings." [In re Ravitch, 754 A.2d 1287 (Pa. Super. 2000).]
4. Misteri Nigger, second "i" silent. No, said the California Court of Appeal in 1992, because it constitutes "fighting words": "[I]f a man asks appellant his name and he answers 'Mister Nigger,' the man might think appellant was calling him 'Mister Nigger.' Moreover, third persons, including children hearing the epithet, may be embarrassed, shocked or offended by simply hearing the word. This example illustrates how use of the name may be 'confusing' with the potential for violence." Definitely does sound like asking for trouble; "Russell Lawrence Lee" is much safer. [Lee v. Superior Court, 9 Cal. App. 4th 510 (1992).]
5. Santa Claus. A split among the courts: An Ohio judge in 2000 rejected Robert William Handley's attempt to become Santa Robert Clause, because:
The petitioner is seeking more than a name change, he is seeking the identity of an individual that this culture has recognized throughout the world, for well over one hundred years. Thus, the public has a proprietary interest, a proprietary right in the identity of Santa Claus, both in the name and the persona. Santa Claus is really an icon of our culture; he exists in the minds of millions of children as well as adults.
The history of Santa Claus—the North Pole, the elves, Mrs. Claus, reindeer—is a treasure that society passes on from generation to generation, and the petitioner seeks to take not only the name of Santa Claus, but also to take on the identity of Santa Claus. Although thousands of people every year do take on the identity of Santa Claus around Christmas, the court believes it would be very misleading to the children in the community, particularly the children in the area that the petitioner lives, to approve the applicant's name change petition.
But the Utah Supreme Court in 2001 let David Lynn Porter become just plain Santa Claus, and never mind the children: "Porter's proposed name may be thought by some to be unwise, and it may very well be more difficult for him to conduct his business and his normal everyday affairs as a result." (D'ya think?) "However, Porter has the right to select the name by which he is known, within very broad limits." [In re Handley, 736 N.E.2d 125 (Ohio Prob. Ct. 2000); In re Porter, 31 P.3d 519 (Utah 2001).]
6. Koriander, with no last name, apparently chosen because of Rosa Linda Ferner's "attraction to a name that sounds appropriate for her work as an artisan." Just fine, a New Jersey judge ruled in 1996. [In re Application of Rosa Linda Ferner to Assume the Name Koriander, 685 A.2d 78 (N.J. Super. L. 1996).]
7. They, again with no last name. OK, said a Missouri judge to a petition by the inventor formerly known as Andrew Wilson. They (not they, They) explained the rationale: "'They do this,' or 'They're to blame for that.' Who is this 'they' everyone talks about? 'They' accomplish such great things. Somebody had to take responsibility."
8. Darren QX [pronounced 'Lloyd'] Bean!. No problem!, holds our friend the California Court of Appeal in 2006. [Darren Lloyd Bean v. Superior Court, 2006 WL [pronounced 'Westlaw'] 3425000 (Cal. App.).] Bean!, who recently sat for the Oregon State Bar, reported that, "Many of his close friends greet him as 'Bean!' When saying his name, friends raise the pitch and the volume of their voices above their usual spoken tone." The court didn't opine further on this, because "this information is not contained in the appellate record." Still, the court reasoned, if O'Rourke is fine, so is Bean!. What's more, the court reported,
At least three people have changed their names to the names of websites with a ".com" in the name. Virginia animal rights activist Karin Robertson legally changed her name to GoVeg.com in 2003 to bring attention to a website of her employer, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Other activists also changed their personal names to websites with ".com" in the names, including "Kentucky fried cruelty.com" and "Ringling beats animals.com." We do not find a legal distinction between a period inside a word, a hyphen between words, an apostrophe in a word, and an exclamation point at the end of a word.
Speakers of !Xóõ and similar click languages must be happy about that.
9. Boys changing their names from, or to, Sue. No known cases.