Little Adolf Campbell is only three, but this birthday may be one he'll remember. That's because his parents decided to contact their local paper and sparked an online furor after their local ShopRite supermarket refused to fulfill their order for a birthday cake with the boy's full name – Adolf Hitler Campbell – inscribed on it.
ShopRite says that their policy prohibits inappropriate messages on cakes, and that this one was pretty clearly inappropriate. Adolf's parents refused the store's compromise offer to make them a cake with space on it to write their own message, and are bewailing a world in which their little boy cannot even have his own name on his birthday cake.
The Campbells, of Holland Township, New Jersey, were eventually able to get the cake they wanted at a nearby WalMart.
Enmeshed in this tempest in a teacup are some delicate civil rights questions. The deluge of comments which greeted the story's appearance included the inevitable ones wondering why on earth anyone would saddle their offspring with the name of history's most notorious genocidal maniac, but also others echoing the Campbells' dismay that the supermarket would penalize an innocent child because of his 'inappropriate' name. Both opinions have weight, but they run up against some strong and valid objections.
Adolf's father, Heath Campbell, is a paragon of disingenuousness. He cannot understand why people are so upset over the incident and thinks they should learn to be more tolerant. He says that he is proud of his German heritage and dubbed his son thus because he thought that it would be great for him to have a name that no one else would have. Apparently he has never heard of such distinguished and almost entirely uncontroversial Germans as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schopenhauer, Otto von Bismarck, Bertolt Brecht and Franz Beckenbauer, any of whose names would seem to serve the purpose just as well. The fact that Adolf's two sisters are named JoyceLynn Aryan Nation and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie also gives the lie to Mr Campbell's protestations of innocence.
There's an old semi-joke that giving a child an excessively odd or unusual name is a form of abuse. Lawmakers in some countries seem to agree: for instance, until 1993 in France parents had to choose from a government-approved list, and there have been recent moves in New Zealand to prevent the giving of egregiously bizarre or offensive names. In the United States, however, the Campbells' right to name their children whatever they wish is protected under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment and a weighty body of statute and case law, most pertinently the Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut.
The right of a child not to be abominably named is much vaguer . The United States is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (although President-elect Obama has promised to address this) and even if it were, many of its provisions are already encoded in various federal and state laws. Court decisions have tended to the paternalistic, deferring to parental authority for the most part unless – and sadly, sometimes even if – there is serious physical or mental harm to the child. There has been much judicial to-ing and fro-ing over whether children even enjoy 'full personhood' at all, with the correspondent protections that the Bill of Rights would give them. So, since Adolf's parents seem genuinely confident that he will not inevitably encounter psychological hell at the hands of his peers once he starts school, it will take a lot more than his birth certificate to constitute mistreatment in the eyes of the law.
That's all very well. What seems to have escaped the Campbells and their sympathizers is ShopRite's equally valid entitlement, as a private business, to determine its terms of customer service. This is a grayer legal area, largely thanks to the legacy of the segregation era, but as long as the supermarket is not discriminating arbitrarily on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin — which is prohibited by federal law — it can do more or less what it wants. It might be argued that the cake, as a private contract between ShopRite and the Campbells, would not actually have wounded or offended anyone (except possibly for poor Abe the pastry cook who had to make the damn thing), and that the only injured party here is young Adolf. But his parents need only have taken their business — since ShopRite did not want it — somewhere else, which is eventually what they did. And it emerges that the Campbells had placed, and been refused, essentially the same cake order on both of Adolf's previous two birthdays, which leads one to wonder why they didn't get the message sooner.