Both sides claimed victory in a Dec. 20 court ruling that while Atlanta had grounds to fire then-Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran in 2015, a city policy forbidding high-ranking officials from speaking or writing for money unconstitutionally burdened his freedom of speech.
Federal Judge Leigh Martin May rejected Cochran’s claims of retaliation, viewpoint discrimination and violation of religious freedom, saying the city had reason to believe that the former chief’s self-published book condemning homosexuality would hinder his ability to lead the fire department.
The judge said a policy requiring employees to get permission for outside employment on their own time, however, gave the city “unbridled discretion” to censor speech that has nothing to do with performance of official duties.
Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, called it an “outstanding victory” for Cochran, now a staff member at Georgia Baptist Convention-affiliated Elizabeth Baptist Church.
“When I called Chief Cochran this evening to congratulate him, he responded by saying he could not have done it without the support he received from the Georgia Baptist Mission Board,” White told the Christian Index. “He has certainly had much prayer support from Georgia Baptists and Christians around the world. We rejoice in this significant victory and answer to prayer.”
Atlanta City Attorney Jeremy Berry welcomed the court’s ruling that the mayor “acted lawfully and appropriately” in terminating Cochran’s employment and said he looks forward to defending the city’s conflict of interest and outside employment pre-clearance policies in court.
“This lawsuit was never about religious beliefs or the First Amendment,” Berry said in a statement. “Rather, it is an employment matter involving an executive in charge of more than 1,100 firefighters and tasked to lead by example.”
Cochran, first appointed head of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department in 2008, was fired Jan. 6, 2015, for writing a book inspired by a men’s Bible study at his church that included passages calling homosexuality a “perversion” outside of God’s will.
He provided copies of the book to subordinates in the fire department, one of whom voiced concern about a risk of discrimination against LGBT employees. A city council member gave a copy to Atlanta’s human resources commissioner, who thought the content of the book could implicate the city with regard to anti-discrimination laws.
Then-Mayor Kasim Reed suspended Cochran for not complying with the policy to obtain permission from an ethics panel and the mayor before writing and publishing the book. During his suspension, Cochran publicly described the dispute as a time of “spiritual warfare” in a speech to about 200 pastors at a meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention executive committee.
The Georgia Baptist Convention Public Affairs Committee responded with a statement calling on Southern Baptists in the state to “stand up for biblical principles and fellow believers who are punished or marginalized for their faith.”
After his firing, Georgia Baptist officials sent out a press release saying Cochran was “wronged” and calling for his reinstatement as fire chief.
Cochran claimed his firing was because of the book’s content. The city said it was because he did not comply with pre-clearance rules and he refused an order not to comment publicly about his suspension.
Court documents described a “massive PR campaign” against the mayor that prompted thousands of angry emails and phone calls to Reed’s home in which he was called a racial slur, the anti-Christ and a terrorist. Some calls included death threats.
Cochran sued the city and mayor for violating his constitutional rights. Judge Martin listed a half-dozen counts showing Cochran’s speech “caused such an actual and possible disruption that it does not warrant First Amendment protection in the workplace” but said the city failed to show how its restrictions on free expression outside of the workplace are necessary to avoid a conflict of interest.
The judge said the pre-clearance policy “would prevent an employee from writing and selling a book on golf or badminton on his own time and, without prior approval, would subject him to firing.”
“It is unclear to the court how such an outside employment would ever affect the city’s ability to function, and the city provides no evidence to justify it,” the judge opined.