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Banning Baby Names

Lucifer, perhaps?

At the start of May for the last few years I’ve seen multiple news items about the baby names that were rejected by the New Zealand authorities during the previous year (e.g., Lucifer, Prince, J, Rogue…).  The list of names, and the fact that the government is able to deem them unacceptable, draws plenty of interest here in the U.S. and in other countries.  I’ve been meaning to look into the rules and their background for some time, so I finally sat down to do a bit of research and write this post.

First, the current law.  The Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Act 1995section 18 (“Acceptance of Names”) provides that a Registrar “shall include in the information recorded under this Act or a former Act relating to a person’s birth any name or combination of names specified unless, in the Registrar’s opinion, it may be undesirable in the public interest for the person to bear it.”  (Section 18(2).)  “Undesirable in the public interest” is then defined later in the section:

(8) For the purposes of this section, it is undesirable in the public interest for a person to bear a name or combination of names if, and only if,

(a) it might cause offence to a reasonable person; or

(b) it is unreasonably long; or

(c) without adequate justification, it is, includes, or resembles, an official title or rank.

The section also sets out procedures for a name to be rejected, and for an affected person to appeal such a decision to the Family Court.

“Bad language” (Photo by Flickr user WordShore)

Section 18 was included in the legislation when it was originally enacted.  I thought I’d check back to see if any similar rules were included in previous legislation.  Looking through the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1951 was actually interesting anyway because of some of the concepts and terminology that it included (e.g., relating to illegitimate children).  But I didn’t find anything about the acceptability of names.  Before that, the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1924 was in place, and there had been various amendments to both.  No mention of unacceptable names there either.  Or in the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1908.  (You can even go back further to the Registration Acts of 1847 and 1858.)

Perhaps the “unique” name phenomenon arose relatively recently, or maybe it just wasn’t considered much of an issue in earlier years.  However, I did find some old New Zealand newspaper articles in my searches that refer to a baby being named “Nimrod Shackleton” in 1908 (following the Antarctic expedition on the Nimrod led by Ernest Shackleton) and a failed attempt by someone in Hungary to name their child “Titanic” following the 1912 sinking.  There was even a short snippet about a baby born in Wellington on a day of an earthquake in 1909 being named “Earthquakina.”  And a baby born on a train in Turkey in 1929 was named “Railroad.”

I figured that the best place to start to find information about why section 18 was included in the 1995 bill would be to look at the original version (bills in New Zealand include an explanatory note when they are introduced) and parliamentary records related to it.

The New Zealand Parliament website contains Hansard (Parliamentary Debates) records and bills back to 2002.  The New Zealand Legal Information Institute databases also contain bills, but only back to 1998.  Some older bills are provided for free in the Knowledge Basket research archives, but full access requires a subscription.  So I checked the hard copies of the Parliamentary Debates for 1995 and read the Third Reading speeches.  No mention of the acceptable name provision there!  (The discussion was more around access to records and registration of gender changes.)  However, I did discover that the bill had waited a long time to be passed – it was introduced in 1990.

This led me all the way back to the 1990 volumes of Hansard.  There was a brief debate about the bill on May 15 of that year upon the tabling of the select committee report on it.  Again, this was mainly about major changes being made, particularly in relation to the changing of birth certificates following sexual assignment surgery.  There was a brief comment about a recommended amendment to clause 20 relating to the acceptance of names by the registrar-general.  This followed a submission from a person who insisted upon using a single name only, which “drew to the attention of the select committee the confusion that existed under the previous legislation as to how many names should be supplied and whether a single name was a surname or a Christian name.”  The amended clause (now section 18(1)) provided that a Registrar cannot record any name or names unless one name is designated as a surname and there are one or more other names.  ([1990] 507 NZPD 1536.)  However, there was no mention of what the remainder of that name clause said.  Maybe it was further expanded later in the process?

Queen Victoria visiting the US Capitol?

Given some of the comments on (or in) the various news articles lamenting the restrictions on freedom of speech or expression arising from the government preventing parents from using the baby names of their choosing, I was also curious about what the advice from the Ministry of Justice might have been on the acceptable name provision.  The Ministry (or the Crown Law Office if the Ministry of Justice is the administering agency for the particular legislation) is tasked with providing an opinion to the Attorney-General as to whether or not a bill is inconsistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (BORA).  Section 14 of BORA provides that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression.”

However, since the bill was apparently introduced in early 1990 or prior, the year that BORA was enacted, it’s highly unlikely that any such advice exists.  There has been advice on amendments to the 1995 legislation since then, but nothing specifically on the name provision.  (For future research reference: where a provision in a bill is found to be inconsistent with BORA, the Attorney-General must table what is known as a “section 7 report” when the bill is introduced in Parliament.  All section 7 reports back to 1990 are available on the Ministry of Justice website.  Advice on BORA-consistent bills is also available online back to 2003.)

As you can see, I wasn’t having much luck with my research!  I could probably search through several more volumes of Hansard but, in the end, locating the full rationale for the “acceptance of names” provision might require the making of requests to the relevant New Zealand agencies to obtain information relating to the original bill (such as the explanatory note, the select committee report, and departmental advice).  Sometimes researchers must go right to the source!

If you haven’t seen them already, you can take a look at the rejected names (and some “quirky” ones that have been accepted) for yourself in the various news articles.  Some might seem relatively benign (like “Justice“), while others are more unusual (like “4Real” and “Mafia No Fear”), and a few seem quite offensive.

A number of articles also discuss the laws of other countries with respect to names.  If time permitted, it would be interesting to research the different sources and reasons for the rules of these countries too, such as China, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, and Hungary (see above re “Titanic”).  Has anyone got some good information on these rules and their history?  What do you think about placing restrictions on names?  Is this an unwarranted restriction on free speech, or are there names or types of names that should be banned?

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