Tim Tebow, free speech and the Super Bowl

The Super Bowl seems an unlikely place for a battleground over social issues, including abortion and free speech.

But the decision by CBS to air an “advocacy ad” featuring former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and his mother, sponsored by Dr. James Dobson and his Focus on the Family organization, has created some controversy in advance of tomorrow’s game.

Organizations which support the rights of women to choose to have abortions — most notably the National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood — have criticized the network for airing the message, which will make the case against abortion.

The ad is called “Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life” and I haven’t been able to find it on the Internet, but those who have seen it say there’s nothing objectionable here — nothing like some of those ads and literature I’ve seen from anti-abortion groups that feature photos of burned fetuses in a dumpster, etc.

According to reports, in the ad Pam Tebow recounts her decision to go against doctors’ recommendations to terminate the pregnancy which produced Tim after she became ill on a mission trip to the Phillippines in 1987. Previewers say they’ve found the message inspirational and uplifting.

Of course, abortion being the divisive issue that it is, the Tebows, Dobson and Focus on the Family have been criticized (or as it’s always said when your side is criticized — “attacked” or “demonized”) for wanting to inject this message into the All-American celebration that is the Super Bowl. And as proof that public life leads to strange alliances, I’ve seen some folks on Facebook, where there’s a group supporting Tebow’s right to speak, that includes some self-avowed Gator-haters.

The criticism is unwarranted, or at least misdirected. Of course, Tim Tebow has the right to speak on this issue, and on Super Bowl Sunday, advertising dollars bestow some of the most powerful free speech rights of all. He should be heard and not censored.

CBS, on the other hand, has taken some heat for what critics call their hypocrisy. In the past, they’ve rejected advocacy, or issue-oriented Super Bowl advertising from controversial organizations like PETA and MoveOn.org. And they also rejected a pretty innocuous-sounding ad from a Canadian gay matchmaking website for this year’s game. One can imagine that the same folks that support the Tebow ad would have a different view of free speech had CBS chosen to air one of these ads.

Planned Parenthood, interestingly, has already aired a response to the ad with former NFL player Sean Jones and former Olympian Al Joyner. The two athletes say they respect the Tebows’ choice but say they hope that their daughters will grow up in a world where women are similarly free to make decisions about their health and their future.

But that’s the beauty of the First Amendment, which we should celebrate as we observe this most American of unofficial holidays tomorrow evening. We have the right to speak about issues and people have the right to disagree. We can readily consume messages that confirm our beliefs, but others have the right to challenge them.

We should no more expect or try to enforce unanimity in that marketplace of ideas than we’ll have on the question of whether the Saints or the Colts should win.

Happy Super Bowl Sunday, everyone.

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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