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Published August 15, 2013, 01:57 PM

Commentary: Should certain baby names be illegal?

When reports surfaced that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West had named their new daughter "North 'Nori' West," it was simply assumed that they were following in the footsteps of fellow celebrities with oddly named kids.

By: Keli Goff, The Root, INFORUM

When reports surfaced that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West had named their new daughter "North 'Nori' West," it was simply assumed that they were following in the footsteps of fellow celebrities with oddly named kids -- kids like Apple Martin (daughter of actress Gwyneth Paltrow and singer Chris Martin) and Pilot Inspektor (son of actor Jason Lee). But while little North West's name has already spawned a number of jokes, the controversy sparked by two other families' proposed baby names is no laughing matter.

Recently a Tennessee judge ordered a mother to change her son's name from "Messiah" to "Martin," citing concerns that the child would face bullying for sharing a name that has such a strong religious connotation. Meanwhile, in June, a couple of self-described Nazis recently announced that they are expecting and plan to name their new child "Eva Braun," the same name as the girlfriend of Adolf Hitler. In some ways, the disturbing name seems fitting, since "Hitler" is the name of the father's older son, of whom the couple is fighting to regain custody.

Little Hitler and his sister, Aryan Nation, along with their other siblings, were removed because of domestic violence allegations. But most observers agree that while the children's names may not have been the official reason they were removed, the names likely played some role in how the couple's parenting skills have been viewed by law enforcement and the courts.

The cases of little Hitler and little Messiah raise a question that rankles legal experts -- namely, should there be explicit laws against what parents can name their children in a country that values free speech?

Laws prohibiting certain names are not entirely far-fetched. In Australia, courts routinely rule that parents must change the names given to their offspring if they would "cause offense to a reasonable person." Names like "Sex Fruit" and "Fish and Chips" have been tossed out. But somehow the name "Violence" managed to make the cut.

Lawrence Walters, an attorney specializing in the First Amendment, explained that it is a misconception that there are no laws restricting what parents can name their children. For instance, many states require that a child be given a last name. But such laws 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," he 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.

"Since parents have a constitutional right to raise their children in the manner of their choice, any restriction on naming rights would be held to a high standard if challenged in court," said Walters. "Thus far, the U.S. Supreme Court has not considered the constitutionality of a law imposing any restriction on child-naming rights."

Cathy Middleton-Lewis, an attorney specializing in child-custody cases, said, "I have constitutional questions on any laws that would encroach on parents' rights," including their right to decide what to name a child. But, she added, "The standard when it comes to custody and in any court proceedings involving a child is what's in the best interest of the child."

She continued, "Is it the best interest of the child to be named 'Hitler'? I personally think to shackle a child with a name like that is poor parenting, and it causes one, including a judge or lawyer, to question the judgment of the parent." Although she said that a name alone is rarely enough to affect custody, she did say that a name could put a particular family on the radar of those government agencies tasked with protecting the health and welfare of children.

"A name can rise to the form of verbal abuse," she explained, agreeing that a name like "Stupid" would qualify. Such a name "could result in lost custody or some other kind of remediation or [judicial] sanctions." There have, however, been instances in which children have received, and kept, comparable names, including a high-profile case in which a family named one son "Winner" and the other "Loser." Middleton-Lewis stressed that she would have concerns about a sweeping law intended to control what parents name their kids.

When asked if parents should contemplate a baby's future career when selecting a name, Roy Cohen, a career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide, said that he sees clients at the executive level who face career challenges because of their names. He referenced one client in particular who was stuck in his career search until Cohen counseled him to shorten his formal name to a nickname.

The client, whose name is not being printed to protect his privacy, had an ethnic name in which the pronunciation sounded like a swear word. After the client adopted the nickname, Cohen said, his career prospects immediately improved. Cohen explained that he has given this advice to various candidates whose names have a strong ethnic identification.

"In an ideal world, we could be called anything we want, but that's not the case," Cohen said. "Even good people have biases that they are not even aware of. So why should we allow them to make decisions subconsciously before they get to know us?" He added, "Once you start working with someone, then you can say, 'That's my nickname; this is my real name.' "

Cohen explained that the topic is personal to him. He grew up in a liberal community at a time when "Roy Cohn" was a household name, and not a good one. Cohn was one of the leaders of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts of the 1950s, which destroyed countless lives and made him a permanent figure of resentment among the left.

When asked why his parents named him after such a notorious figure, Cohen explained that he was named after a deceased family friend. "My mother had a crush on him."

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Goff is The Root's special correspondent

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