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COLUMN: Do 'all lives matter?'

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The Paducah Sun/Kentucky Press News Service

December is shaping up as a somewhat Orwellian month in the realm of free speech.

In Washington, the Supreme Court decided to take up the issue of whether states can deny permission for specialty license plates that have a logo or message that might offend some people. Given that states cannot ban stuff like pornography on the grounds it might offend some people, one would think the answer to that question would be no. But read on.

The case involves the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The organization was seeking a specialty plate with its logo bearing the Confederate battle flag, similar to plates issued by several other states for the organization. A Texas motor vehicle board rejected the group's request, saying that many members of the public reasonably associate the Confederate flag with expressions of hatred or bias against minorities.

Texas has issued more than 350 specialty plates saying such things as "Choose Life" and "God Bless Texas." It has issued plates in support of the Boy Scouts, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and blood donations, to name a few.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans argue that denying the plate is discriminatory. Texas argues otherwise, saying that since it has not previously approved a license plate expressing any viewpoint on the Confederacy, this was not constitutionally impermissible viewpoint discrimination.

A federal trial court sided with Texas, but the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling in a split decision. The appeals court majority ruled that Texas cannot selectively shield the public from speech it perceives as offensive.

We think the appellate court got it right in this particular instance, but the fact the Supreme Court took up the case means that it is no slam dunk. Only time will tell.

Also on the speech front in recent days is the curious case of the president of Smith College, who apologized this week for saying in an email subject line that "all lives matter."

Smith College is famously liberal, with such feminists as Gloria Steinem and Betty Freidan among its alumni. Its president, Kathleen McCartney, included the offending subject line in an email in support of students protesting the grand jury decisions not to indict in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

But her email produced a backlash from students, who felt her terminology undermined a slogan of the protests: "black lives matter." As one student told the Daily Hampshire Gazette, "It felt like she was invalidating the experience of black lives."

Please. We've come an awful long way when a phrase like "all lives matter" is deemed offensive. It's political correctness run amok. One can only wonder, given the aforementioned Texas case, whether if someone sought to put "all lives matter" on a specialty plate, a state could forbid it because the term is perceived as offensive at Smith College.

Being a newspaper, readers can pretty well guess where we come down on this. We may not agree with what you have to say, but we'll fight to the death to defend your right to say it. We hope the Supreme Court comes down on the side of free speech in the Texas case. As for the controversy at Smith, it will surely blow over.