After serving time in prison for multiple sexual assault convictions committed in the 1990s, Hollis Larson was scheduled for release in February 2008.
Instead, Goodhue County filed a petition calling Larson "sexually dangerous," and sought to have him civilly committed in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).
Last year, Larson, 55, tried challenging not his continued incarceration by the state of Minnesota at its facility Moose Lake, but merely how he appears in its paperwork. A petition filed by Larson would change his legal name to "Better Off Dead."
The phrase-cum-name is an outgrowth of Larson's varied religious ideals, which incorporate "Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Agnosticism," according to a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision handed down Monday. Larson's belief system allows for reincarnation after death, though he feels the only way to "achieve reconciliation with the divine" is "being and remaining dead," according to the court's ruling.
The "Better Off Dead" idea was a non-starter for Anoka County, where Larson had been convicted of a first-degree criminal sexual assault in 1992. The county said Larson's attempt was a potential threat to "public safety," and forced him to take his case to district court.
Larson testified the name should be protected as free speech under the First Amendment, calling it a "peaceful form of protest against... all these entities that caused me this pain and suffering and leading to my... philosophy of life."
Larson, who represented himself, also argued his new moniker wouldn't mean his given name was lost to history, as "virtually every/any document created by his current captors," in his words, "will also state '[formerly known as] John Hollis Larson."
Anoka prosecutors countered that allowing "Better Off Dead" to begin appearing in documents would compromise the state's ability to keep records and carry out "future investigations or prosecutions" of Larson, while also inhibiting public access to information.
The district court ruled in Anoka's favor, saying the new name could be "misleading" or "confusing," and on Monday the appeals court upheld that ruling, rejecting arguments Larson made on the basis of religious freedom and freedom of speech.
On the religious argument, the high court agreed with the lower court that Larson's belief was not "sincerely held," quoting the original ruling's point that the phrase "‘Better Off Dead’ does not have a known connection to any particular religious faith or belief.”
The denial of Larson's free speech claim was more straightforward: Neither the district court nor the state appeals court believe the constitutional right to free speech extends to the right to change your legal name. "[Larson] failed to provide specific authority regarding the
free-speech right to change one’s name under these circumstances," reads the appeals court decision, "and there appears to be none."