Marijuana Activist Can’t Change His Name to “NJWeedman.com” — In re Forchion

[Post by Venkat Balasubramani with additional comments by guest blogger Laura Heymann and Eric]

[Eric’s note: this may be our first post with *three* different bloggers covering the same case! Venkat starts us off:]

In re Robert Edward Forchion, Jr., 2011 WL 3834929 (Ca. Ct. App. Aug 31, 2011)

Robert Edward Forchion, Jr. filed a petition to have his name changed legally to “NJWeedman.com.” The trial court denied the request, and the appeals court affirms.

Background: As the court describes him, Forchion:

is a resident of New Jersey. Since 2009, he has managed a Rastafarian temple in Los Angeles and has operated a medical marijuana dispensary that he claims is lawful under the Compassion Use Act of 1996. . . . He has devoted his adult life to promoting the legalization of marijuana and, in 2000, was convicted in New Jersey of marijuana offenses. Forchion is currently facing trial in New Jersey on marijuana charges arising out of an arrest on April 1, 2010. He is free on bail.

Forchion has a national reputation as a marijuana advocate and is popularly known as NJweedman. He operates a Web site, “NJweedman.com,” which discusses his efforts to legalize the drug. In 2001, Forchion unsuccesfully petitioned the New Jersey state courts to change his name to “NJWeedman.com.”

Discussion:

Forchion’s life: The court spends approximately 20 pages recounting the details of Forchion’s life, including his protests, and brushes with the law. (These facts were apparently taken from Forchion’s website.) For example, the court notes that he “smoked his first marijuana cigarette and ‘was immediately impressed by its medical healing powers, in regard to his asthma’ . . . . [b]y age 18 he was a regular user . . . and dismissed the Surgeon General’s claims of its harms as ‘propaganda and Christian superstitions.'” He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps where he continued to use marijuana, despite the government’s prohibition. He became a coast-to-coast trucker in 1994. In 1995 he “became a practicing Rastafarian.”

In 2008, he apparently fled to California, “seeking asylum, leaving the garden state for the pot friendly environs of Los Angeles.” In 2009 he opened a “Rastafarian Temple” on Hollywood Boulevard. The temple was named “Liberty Temple II, after a series of protests he held at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.” He then became a “Hollywood persona,” and opened a “party promotions company called “NJweedmanPromotions.” In 2010, he penned his biography, which was titled “Public Enemy #420.” None of this is particularly relevant to Forchion’s name change petition, but the court walks through the facts in some detail and they were strangely interesting. (All of this just gets to page 6 of the court’s recitation of facts.)

Name changes generally: The court notes that people who wish to change their names have two different options. They can take the route of a “common law change of name,” and simply start referring to themselves as something else (as long as their purpose is not to “defraud or intentionally confuse”). They can also formally change their names pursuant to statute. The statutory route offers certain advantages, namely the change of name is “definitely and specifically established and easily proved.” In contrast:

[a] common law name change . . . carries with it no mandate to those with whom one comes in contact to accept at face value the nexus between the new name and the individual who assumes it.

In any event, the court concludes that while there must be a “substantial” reason for denial of a request to change one’s name, the trial court is vested with discretion in ruling on a name change petition and the reasons offered in case law for refusing a name change request are not exhaustive.

Can Forchion change his name to a domain name?: The court turns to the key issue of whether Forchion can change his name to a domain name. This turns on whether Forchion is guaranteed to be able to use the NJWeedman.com domain name indefinitely. The court notes that although domain name registrants “appear to possess all [of] the component rights” of property owners, on closer examination, “it becomes apparent that a domain name is not property.” The court concludes that a domain name is merely the product of an agreement for services between the registrant and the registrar. The agreement–pursuant to which a registrant secures a domain name–is not guaranteed to continue indefinitely. The registrar places numerous limitations on the registrant’s use of a domain name and if the registrant breaches the domain name registration agreement in any number of ways (e.g., fails to pay fees, allows the domain name registration to lapse, uses the domain name in violation of the law), the registrar can cease providing the registration services. The court sees this as problematic because if Forchion’s name change is approved, his name would “permanently” become “NJWeedman.com,” but if he loses the domain name a subsequent user could end up with the rights to NJWeedman.com. In the court’s eyes, the “dual use might create confusion, depending in part on what the new registrant did with NJweedman.com.”

The court also notes that even if Forchion continued to pay the registration fees in perpetuity, his use of the domain name may run into problems due to a conflict with third party trademark rights. If a third party is able to assert trademark rights and successfully force Forchion to change his website or discontinue his use of the NJweedman domain name, the court says that his continued use of NJweedman.com as a personal name would be problematic. The court says it’s not aware of any procedure pursuant to which a third party could force NJweedman.com (f/k/a Forchion) to change his personal name. The court says that these types of trademark considerations are not ones that the trial court should be forced to consider, when ruling on a name change. [Strangely enough, the court relies on those considerations in making its decision.] At the end of the day, the court says that domain names and personal names should remain in separate realms and the streams should not be crossed:

In sum, personal names and domain names should not overlap; they belong in distinct realms. Domain names were created for use on the Internet and should be limited to assisting a user in finding a desired Web site. By the same token, we should not treat a person as part of a domain.

As an added bonus, the court also points out that Forchion’s website encourages others to break the law and is on thin legal ice. The website provides instructions on how to grow marijuana. It urges individuals to call New Jersey law enforcement and “provide false reports about the use of marijuana, hoping to send the police on wild goose chases and squander valuable resources.” The court also closes the 37 page (!) order with a nod to comity principles. The court notes that while courts are “divided over res judicata applies to name changes . . . the principles that underlie the application of that doctrine are present here.”

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The court’s opinion borders on entertaining and covers a lot of different ground. In particular, the discussion of the two types of name changes was interesting. At 37 pages, it felt a bit excessive, but I can’t say I was disappointed after reading it.

I was surprised to see the court treat the domain name registration rights as a contract right, rather than a property right, given that numerous cases have discussed the issue since Kremen v. Cohen and have concluded that (at least for conversion and creditor remedies purposes) domain names are considered property and not a contract right. (See, for example: Eysoldt v. ProScan and CRS Recovery, Inc. v. Laxton.) As Eric points out, the fact that the domain name registration agreement could lapse or be terminated wasn’t a particularly persuasive basis to deny Forchion’s name change request.

I hadn’t given any thought to the interplay between trademarks and personal name changes, but a quick Google search led me to a Yahoo! answers question titled “Can i legally change my name to Krispy Kreme,” which in turn led to a New York Times article about a 1995 lawsuit between Coca Cola and Fredrick Koch, who wanted to change his name to “Coke-is-It.” (See “Coke Settles With ‘Coke-is-it.'”) It looks like Coca Cola settled with Mr. Coke-is-it based in part on his agreement to not use his name commercially. To the extent the court should have even raised the issue on its own, the trademark versus personal name conflict was unrealistic in this case, given the name chosen by Forchion. I guess a lawn maintenance company in New Jersey could have a similar name and grumble, but really?

I wasn’t particularly persuaded by the court’s reasoning that a person should not share a personal name with a website because of the possibility of confusion between the two. Is there a realistic possibility that someone would look at Forchion post-name change and equate him with a website found on the internet? Even to the extent there is confusion, would this really result from the addition of .com to NJweedman? Courts and the PTO have long recognized the lack of trademark significance of a .com, and the court’s conclusion seems to presume that Forchion’s use of a dot com for his personal name would somehow be the basis for confusion.

I didn’t have any immediate plans to change my name to balasubramani.com, but at least in California it looks like this wouldn’t fly.

Other coverage:

Court won’t let marijuana activist change his legal name to njweedman.com” (Evan Brown)

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Laura Heymann’s Comments

[Eric’s introduction: I’m pleased to include the following thoughts from Laura Heymann, the Class of 2014 Professor of Law at William & Mary Law School. Laura has been doing some excellent and thought-provoking work on the regulation of naming, and this case squarely implicates the issues she has been thinking about deeply.]

In In re Robert Edward Forchion, the California Court of Appeal affirmed a lower court decision denying Forchion the right to change his name to NJweedman.com, which also happens to be the URL for his website. Forchion is not the first individual to attempt to change his name to a URL. In 2003, animal rights activist Karin Robertson legally changed her name to GoVeg.com, the website of her employer, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in order to spark discussions about vegetarianism and animal rights; she reverted to her birth name three years later.

Forchion has apparently long advocated in favor of the legalization of marijuana, and both his advocacy and his personal experience with the drug have been the cause of a number of run-ins with the law, all of which is detailed at his website. (As Venkat notes, the California appellate court, taking “judicial notice of the content of [Forchion’s] Web site and any other Web site to which it provides a link,” quoted extensively from the website in rendering its decision.) While he was incarcerated in New Jersey, his home state, Forchion unsuccessfully petitioned the New Jersey state courts to change his name to NJWeedman.com. Forchion subsequently moved to California, where he continued his advocacy (and also operated an allegedly lawful medical marijuana dispensary). In California, Forchion tried again, petitioning a lower court to change his name to NJweedman.com, and was similarly rebuffed both there and on appeal.

As Forchion’s choice of moniker demonstrates, and as I have discussed in a recent article (Naming, Identity, and Trademark Law), personal names have at least three functions. A name is denotative, in that it refers to or identifies a person, allowing us to talk about an individual when he or she isn’t present. A name is also connotative, in that it often suggests or brings to mind a set of characteristics or attributes relating to the person to whom the name is connected. Parents typically have connotation in mind when they decide what to name their children, particularly when choosing a name that signifies a connection to a religious or ethnic heritage. And a name also has an associative function in that it signals a connection to a group or family. Indeed, the decision of Eric and his wife, Lisa, to take on a new shared surname upon their marriage is an example of, as he once wrote, establishing a “new common identity which is uniquely [theirs] as a couple.”

Our personal names also function, in a sense, like trademarks. When we write or speak or otherwise share our creativity with the world, our name is what tells people who is responsible for those thoughts and what allows us to build our reputations. And, like trademarks, we may well want to choose a name for our efforts that is itself creative – that expresses something about ourselves that our given names do not. Indeed, each time we participate in an online environment – a social network, a virtual world, a blog, or even sending e-mail – we choose a name through which we will present ourselves to the world.

Many naming choices are made informally – we ask friends and relatives to call us by a nickname or choose a pseudonym when we decide to comment on a blog post. But in an increasingly administrative world, some choose to make names “official” by petitioning the courts for a change in name. Despite the claim by many jurisdictions that this process is ministerial – simply to create an official record of the exercise of the right we have under the common law to change our name – courts will, from time to time, deny such requests on the grounds that the requested name was chosen for fraudulent or deceptive reasons, is offensive or obscene, or is otherwise objectionable. California’s name change statute has been interpreted as granting the courts discretion in deciding whether to grant a name change petition but also as providing that petitions should not be denied without some “substantial reason.” Indeed, the California courts’ own website suggests that the “main reasons” for denying a name change petition in the state are a finding that the petitioner is changing his name to commit fraud, hide from authorities, or for some other illegal reason.

So why was Forchion’s petition to change his name to NJweedman.com denied? The California appellate court offered four reasons, all of which seem somewhat curious. First, the court held that allowing Forchion to change his name to NJweedman.com ran the risk of confusing others. For example, the court noted, if Forchion ever lost the domain name for his website and someone else were to pick it up, there would now be two entities out there sharing the name NJweedman.com: Forchion and the now unrelated website. This, the court held, was untenable because “if both parties used that name to conduct business, confusion might result.” Second, even if Forchion did maintain the website, the court held, “the name might be so similar to another Web site name or trademark that the multiple usage would create confusion.” Third, the court held that the name change would encourage those who encountered Forchion to view his website, which, the court concluded, encouraged illegal activity. And, finally, the court held that given Forchion’s failed attempt to request a similar name change in New Jersey, his home state, principles of comity militated in favor of denying relief in California.

The idea that changing one’s name to that of an existing URL would create a level of confusion warranting the denial of the name change – either as between that URL or another URL or trademark – seems implausible. Naming is always contextual, and it is the rare name that isn’t also being used by someone else. We all like to think of our names as unique, but a quick Google search will often reveal at least one other person who shares our first name/last name combination. [Eric’s note: recall our mockery of Bev Stayart on this point]. It’s also not uncommon for a personal name to be identical to a common word in the English (or another) language, such as the first names Hope, Faith, Hunter, and Clay. None of this presents a considerable difficulty either for the named or for those who refer to them; context will typically tell us whether the sentence “Faith is important to me” is being uttered by a congregant or by Faith’s partner. Although it has communicative components to it, a URL is ultimately an address. “Montana,” for example, has ranked among the top 1,000 girls’ names in the United States in recent years [you can do a search for Montana in NameVoyager], but no one would suggest that the existence of hundreds of little Montanas running around is going to cause travelers to have problems finding the state on a map. Nor is the potential similarity to an existing trademark problematic. A quick Internet search reveals more than fifty individuals with the given name John Deere, but it is unlikely that anyone negotiating with any of these men has been confused into thinking that they are dealing with the farm equipment manufacturer.

Comity also seems to be a curious basis for denying a name change petition. Given the mobility of individuals today and evolving family situations, it’s possible that an individual might change one’s surname upon marriage, change it back to one’s birth name upon divorce, change it again upon remarriage, and change it again for professional reasons. It would be odd to suggest that the ruling of any one state on one of these petitions would affect in any way the ability of another state to make a subsequent ruling. There may be statutory limitations on a court’s ability to render such a judgment, in that a particular state statute might require that the petitioner be a resident of the state in order to file a petition (as the appellate court suggested here). But comity doesn’t seem to be the reason to bar such requests, particularly if part of the basis for deferring to a sister state is, as the court stated here, that “the first two letters of the requested name — NJ — are not only the home state’s abbreviation but are intended to refer to that state.”

And so we come to what seems to be the primary motivation for the denial: the content of Forchion’s website. The court did not conclude that the name “NJweedman.com” was itself offensive; indeed, it noted that several New Jersey residents bear the surname Weedman. And while courts have rejected petitions to change one’s name to words that are, on their face, offensive or obscene, on the ground that the court should not be seen as stamping its imprimatur on the name choice, the name “NJweedman.com” does not seem to rise to that level. Nor should the fact that the name request is unusual be dispositive. Courts have approved name changes to single words, such as “Variable,” and to names that include punctuation marks, such as exclamation points. Not all courts have followed this path; a Pennsylvania court in 2000 affirmed a lower court’s rejection of a woman’s request to change her surname to the letter R on the ground that such a surname was “bizarre” and would therefore arouse suspicion. But even the New Jersey appellate court hearing Forchion’s previous petition noted, in its 2004 ruling, that “the name is not so bizarre as to call for denial of the request on that basis.”

But denying a name change petition on the ground that it may lead others to read about the petitioner’s views on controversial matters – even if those views can be characterized as supporting illegal activity – seems to create difficult boundary problems. A name change inspired by a reclaiming of one’s heritage, for example, may connect that individual to new or additional communities, but it would be problematic to suggest that a court’s view of that community should be the basis for rejecting the change. The fact that Forchion’s requested name change is also the URL of the site may well inspire a few who encounter Forchion to visit the site. But given Forchion’s own self-promotion efforts – and the media stories that have resulted, many of which use Forchion’s adopted name in any event – any such effect seems to be a thin justification for deeming the name change improper. Indeed, the fact that the court stated that the URL “should not also serve as Forchion’s personal name as long as he uses the Web site to encourage others to violate the law,” thus suggesting that the name would be appropriate were the content of the website to change, raises interesting First Amendment implications.

Here, the words of an Ohio appellate court seem relevant, when, in 2005, it granted a petitioner’s request to change his name to “Sacco Vandal,” after the anarchist Nicola Sacco and the Germanic tribe. “It’s a free country,” the court wrote. “The applicant is a grownup. He can change his name to anything he wants so long as the new name is not clearly improper or unreasonable . . . . If the applicant is using the name change to make a statement to society – and most applicants do – it is a subtle one.” The statement that Forchion is making by calling himself NJweedman.com may be considerably less subtle, but that does not mean it is without expressive content.

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Eric’s comments

I agree with Laura’s comments that the court’s rationales for rejecting the name change are indefensible. It seems that the court implicitly–and improperly–shifted the burden onto Forchion to have a good reason for the name change, instead of retaining the burden to provide a good reason why the name change was problematic.

I was especially unpersuaded about the possibility that the NJWeedman.com domain name would end up in someone else’s hands. If this is the court’s concern, Forchion could have prepaid the domain name registration for the maximum length permissible, which I believe is at least a decade. That wouldn’t have changed the fact that Forchion could still lose the domain name due to a breach of the registration agreement, but I believe those interventions are exceedingly rare. So the “permanence” of a domain name registration could be largely addressed through cash, and the court cut an analytical corner by treating a domain name registration as impermanent.

I’m also scratching my head because Forchion can still effectuate a common law name change, which will give him 90% of the website publicity traffic he seeks. So it’s not clear how the court actually advances its policy concerns by denying the official name change.

More generally, despite Laura’s scholarly work, state policies governing name spaces remain undertheorized and under-scrutinized. For example, as I blogged on my personal blog, California went decades with a facially illegal distinction in its marriage license, letting the woman take the man’s name but not letting the man take the woman’s name. California finally fixed this problem with a statute in 2007. For more discussion on government policies towards personal names, see these articles on marriage names and baby names). Another government-operated namespace that doesn’t get much attention are vanity automobile license plates; we’ve seen a variety of questionable government policies emerge there without much pushback.

FWIW, because I changed my name to Eric Goldman from Eric Schlachter, the name Eric Schlachter is freely available for other takers (although, I should point out, there are a few other Eric Schlachters currently using the name). As I mentioned in this blog post, anyone else is free to adopt “Eric Goldman” too, but I plan to defend my favorable search engine placement vigorously!

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