While the All-American football star Tim Tebow is as widely admired for his religious displays and social conservatism as he is for his athletic prowess, baseball great Ozzie Guillen’s foray into political free speech has not been as well received. 

Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

The Venezuelan-born Guillen told the magazine that he “loves” Castro. He said he admired the way the dictator had survived in power for almost 60 years, despite U.S. opposition and numerous death threats.  Unlike his slur; which was abhorrent, Guillen’s recent political comments epitomize the very essence of what freedom of speech is supposed to protect — dissent and controversial political opinions. 

There’s a legacy of professional athletes being publicly cannibalized for their “radical” political views. For instance, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali was banned for a number of years from boxing for his avoidance of the draft and expressed opposition to the Vietnam War.

Controversy followed Tommie Smith and John Carlos for their black power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. And more recently, NFL star Rashard Mendenhall, at 23, lost his million-dollar championship endorsement for questioning on Twitter whether the exalted celebration of Osama bin Laden’s death was indeed dignified. 

While the First Amendment grants constitutional protection from governmental restriction of free speech, private companies can constitutionally intrude on their employees’ freedom of speech inside and outside the workplace. Courts have held that however chilling, private companies can curtail employee freedom of expression. 

Yet, in maintaining our free society, even without an express constitutional mandate, private companies can and should uphold the First Amendment. Tebow’s trademark genuflection after he scores a touchdown has been dubbed by fans as “Tebowing,” reflecting his express devotion to Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, according to Sean S. O’Neil for Religion Dispatches.

In his best-selling book, “Through My Eyes,” Tebow shares his family’s pro-life story while making his Christian faith the cornerstone of his football success. Tebow’s public celebration of Christianity, which has made him a wholesome role model to many while unsettling others, is expressly protected by the First Amendment. And it did not cause him to skip a beat in terms of lucrative endorsement deals, which include contracts with Nike, Jockey International and FRS Health Energy.

The disparate treatment of Tebow and Guillen raises the question of whether highly public, powerful corporations should be able to shape and mold public discourse by selectively censoring employee speech.

Given the benefits derived from private industry’s almost unfettered ability to lobby the public sector and sheer ubiquity in our everyday lives, it seems only fair that these large, often multinational corporations have a reciprocal obligation to respect the constitutional rights and freedoms of the public they serve and from whom they clearly derive great benefit.  

In Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501 (1946), the Supreme Court held that residents of a privately owned company town still had constitutional protections, and that the company could not abridge the community’s constitutional rights.  In foreshadowing the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which prohibited the government from restricting political expenditures by corporations and unions, the high court took umbrage at private corporations having “absolute dominion.”

The justices reasoned that the more public the private property, the more an owner’s rights are circumscribed by the statutory and constitutional rights of the public invited within that property.

In Guillen’s case, the Miami Marlins $2 billion publicly-funded, “private” mega stadium surely rivals the parochial company town of yesteryear, not only based upon its hefty reliance on tax dollars, but also in its size and ability to seat, serve and employ such a vast swath of the public.

The First Amendment is not about double standards or cherry picking. If Tebow, while wearing a private team’s jersey and mantle, can exude conservative family and religious values — which some may consider marginalizing to women and minorities of all kinds — then why shouldn’t Guillen be allowed to express his political views without taking a corporate hit?

Joy Freeman-Coulbary, a Washingtonian, is a pacifist, lawyer and blogger. You can reach her at freemancoulbary@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @enJOYJFC.

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