Epstein on Offensive Names and the Limits of the Law

Can Parents Name Their Child 'Adolf Hitler'?
Richard A. Epstein
January 27, 2009

Shakespeare's profound insight that the properties of an object are not determined by the names attached to it may supply a decisive answer to the philosophical traditional of nominalism. But his immortal couplet doesn't scratch the surface on the larger question of whether the state should impose any limits on how we name ourselves or our children.

At first blush, this right to name looks to lie at the core of any sound theory of self-identification--a hot-button social issue on which most people hold strong, if implicit, libertarian views.

But a latent confusion on this question raises unanticipated difficulties. The solid part of the naming hypothesis gives each person the exclusive right to name himself or herself, or for parents to name (jointly--another potential can of worms) their children. But it hardly follows that an exclusive right must necessarily be an unlimited one. After all, my exclusive use of my own land doesn't allow me to pollute my neighbors with impunity. Quite simply, there are some names at least that have to be regarded as off limits.

Richard A. Epstein