Saturday, March 21, 2009

Blaspheming in Philadelphia

Great - Blasphemy laws exist in Pennsylvania (and also in Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wyoming). Wow! I feel almost at home - except that in Pennsylvania a man can't have a particular name for a company, whereas in Pakistan, one can get a death sentence for a similar crime. C'mon - US needs to toughen up :)

Here is the bizarre story from Pennsylvania (tip Laura Sizer). George Kalman wanted to create a company - but the name of his company got rejected because it violated Pennsylvania's blasphemy law:

The first line on the document asked Mr. Kalman to supply his chosen corporate name, and he printed it in: I Choose Hell Productions, LLC. In a personal bit of existentialism, Mr. Kalman believed that, even if life was often hellish, it was better than suicide.

A week later, the daily mail to Mr. Kalman’s home in the Philadelphia suburb of Downingtown brought a form letter from the Pennsylvania Department of State. His corporate filing had been rejected, the letter explained, because a business name “may not contain words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name.”
...
After a couple more readings, though, Mr. Kalman realized that the rejection was genuine. Pennsylvania, it turned out, indeed had a law against blasphemy. In the short term, Mr. Kalman successfully filed for incorporation as ICH Productions, LLC. In the longer run, he put in a call to the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and set in motion a challenge to the state law.
What is most surprising here is that the Pennsylvania law is only from 1977!

Pennsylvania’s law may be the most idiosyncratic of all, because it covers only the matter of corporate names. And, rather than being a dusty vestige of the 19th century, it was enacted (and overwhelmingly so) only in 1977. A Democratic legislator, Emil Mrkonic, wrote the bill after a mail-order fire-arms dealer filed incorporation papers for the God Damn Gun Shop.

The statute provides no guidance on what exactly constitutes profaning the Lord’s name. Nor does it specify who will make that decision, or how it will be made.
Amazing! Too bad this case is in Philadelphia and not in Dover. Read the full story here.

7 comments:

ungtss said...

While I think this law is pretty ridiculous, the author of the article (and the man pushing the suit) misunderstand the law.

The First Amendment does not apply to the naming of corporations and LLCs. I can call myself "Bill Gates," stand on a box on the street-corner and tell everybody what life is like as the founder of Microsoft. Unless I'm libeling or defrauding, the 1st amendment protects me.

But the registration of corporations is very different. I can't register a corporation named "Microsoft." It's called "Trademark Infringement."

That's because when you register a corporation, the government is giving sanction, legitimacy, legal status, and protection to your company. You can't call yourself whatever you want. In Britain, for instance, you can't call yourself "The British lemonade stand company" without government approval.

When you register an LLC called "I Choose Hell Productions," the government is giving sanction and legitimacy to your company, and protection to that name.

Contrary to popular opinion, of course, the establishment clause prohibits the government from advancing or inhibiting the exercise of religion.

By providing government sanction and legitimacy to a name that insults a particular religion (for instance, 'All Christians need to be strung up and killed, Inc.' or 'Muslims are Morons, LLC' is a completely different case from expressing those opinions in a coffee shop with your friends. The First Amendment protects the behavior in the second case. It prohibits the behavior in the first case.

So is this law a good idea? Frankly, I don't particularly care. But criticisms of the law should rest of policy (like, 'This law is stupid') rather than constitutional law (like, 'the first amendment prohibits this') because if anything, the First Amendment supports the law.

Matthew said...

Philadelphia is not like the rest of Pennsylvania. Overall the state is very conservative, so the fact that they have this law doesn't really surprise me at all.

Don't forget, PA gave us Rick Santorum...

Salman Hameed said...

Matt,

Yes, I forgot about Rick Santorum. No surprise then... :)

Ungtss,

Interesting point. But it depends on how blasphemy law in PA is actually written. If it includes a particular religion (or terms that apply to a particular religion) - then perhaps it will fall under the First Amendment.

Don said...

I also think ungtss has an interesting point when it comes to the government conferring legitimacy on registered trademarks and corporate names, but in the case of this particular law it seems as if a particular religion is being singled out.

They could have kept it as a plain ol' controversial obscenity law, but "the Lord's name" pretty clearly signals a Jewish, Christian, or Islamic bias. If someone was interested in registering the equivalent of "I choose Hell" in Hindu terms, that clause of the law would probably have nothing to say about it. Hell, thinking of the conservative spirit in which the law was likely enacted, it seems unlikely that the religious synonymy would even be caught by legal watchdogs. I think there's a case to be made, but only in so much as the particular religious reference should be removed. Getting the whole anti-"obscenity" part of the law thrown out is something else entirely, and is made much more difficult in exactly the way you pointed out.

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