The choice of what to name your child is often a process that parents take great care in selecting—conducting countless Internet searches, pouring over “baby name” books, and researching family histories to find the perfect name for their newborn. While a person’s name, especially a child’s name, is generally viewed as an important and determinative part of one’s identity, there are very few laws in the United States regulating or restricting a parents’ right to name their own children whatever they choose. Unlike countries like France or Portugal, which have laws that outline permissible first names or prohibit parents from giving their child a name that is contrary to the child’s welfare, parents in the United States have wide latitude and creative freedom when it comes to deciding the name of their offspring, and many parents take full advantage of this. It is not uncommon for a celebrity to give their child “unique” or “unusual” names—such as Beyoncé’s recent addition, Blue Ivy Carter; Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter Apple; Jason Lee who named his son Pilot Inspektor; or most recently Kanye West naming his daughter North.
Heath and Deborah Campbell, a non-celebrity couple from New Jersey, became infamous in 2009 when it was reported that they chose to name their three children in honor of prominent Nazi historical figures: Adolf Hitler Campbell, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation, and Honszlynne Hinler Jeanne. There was widespread public outcry over the children’s names which the masses deemed offensive; with many questioning why the New Jersey State Registrar had not rejected the proposed names. The laws regulating a parent’s right to name their child are called “Naming Laws.” Naming laws vary widely from state to state, and several states have no laws whatsoever addressing permissible names. Other states, like Connecticut, Michigan, and Nevada are so unregulated when it comes to naming a child, that they do not even require that a child’s name be included on their birth certificate. Unlike several states, New Jersey does in fact have a naming law, which is illustrative of typical regulations on baby naming seen in states throughout the county.
New Jersey’s naming law places very few limitations on baby naming; in fact, New Jersey law specifies that “the designation of a child’s name, including the surname, is the right of the child’s parents.” Such broad language begs the questions: Can I name my child anything I want in New Jersey? Despite New Jersey law explicitly giving parents the right to choose both their child’s first and last names, this right is not absolute. When it comes to conferring a name on your child in New Jersey, a parent’s rights are not completely unfettered—New Jersey permits the State Registrar to “reject a name that contains an obscenity, numerals, symbols, or a combination of letters, numerals, or symbols, or a name that is illegible.” For example, under New Jersey law parents would be permitted to name their child after Nazi historical figures, like the Campbells did, but could not name their child the number 4.
When the Campbells first gained notoriety, many commentators argued that the children’s names should have been rejected because they were obscene and offensive. However, New Jersey law only prohibits names that contain obscenities—such as those that would include racial epithets or curse words. In light of the United States Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech, it is unlikely that New Jersey could prevent a parent from naming their child after an unpopular political figure, such as Adolph Hitler, without running afoul of the First Amendment. The process of naming your child is an expressive activity which is constitutionally protected, and arguably a fundamental right.
Therefore, as a parent, you are well within your right to push the boundaries of creativity and bestow a unique name upon your child. But be mindful that in New Jersey, your creativity is not limitless. You do have the right to name your child after a line from your favorite song like Jason Lee did when he named his son Pilot Inspektor after listening to the song “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot” by the band Grandaddy. However, if you want to use a symbol to represent your child’s name, or if you attempt to name your child some random compilation of letters, the New Jersey State Registrar will likely reject those name choices because they contain symbols which are prohibited or because the combination of letters makes the name illegible. With so few limitations, New Jersey parents can confidently toss out those suggested baby name books and just let creativity be their guide when selecting a name for their little bundle of joy.