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Published On: Wed, Oct 17th, 2018

City of Atlanta to pay Kelvin Cochran for unconstitutional firing

The city of Atlanta has agreed to pay its former fire chief, Kelvin Cochran, $1.2 million in the wake of a December 2017 court ruling that found some of the city’s policies that led to his termination are unconstitutional. The court determined that Atlanta’s rules restricting non-work speech, like the book for Christian men that Cochran wrote, were too broad and allowed city officials to unconstitutionally discriminate against views with which they disagree.

On Monday, the city council voted on the specific amount of damages and attorneys’ fees that it owes to the highly decorated former fire chief after negotiating with his Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys.

“The government can’t force its employees to get its permission before they engage in free speech. It also can’t fire them for exercising that First Amendment freedom, causing them to lose both their freedom and their livelihoods,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot, who argued before the court on behalf of Cochran last year. “We are very pleased that the city is compensating Chief Cochran as it should, and we hope this will serve as a deterrent to any government that would trample upon the constitutionally protected freedoms of its public servants.”

With regard to the city’s “pre-clearance” rules, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia wrote in its December 2017 decision in Cochran v. City of Atlanta, “This 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 potential for stifled speech far outweighs any unsupported assertion of harm.”

The court added that provisions within the rules “do not set out objective standards for the supervisor to employ.” “This does not pass constitutional muster,” the court concluded.

Cochran wrote a 162-page devotional book on his personal time that briefly mentions his Christian views on sex and marriage. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed suspended Cochran for 30 days without pay and announced that he would have to complete “sensitivity training.” Reed then fired him, even though a city investigation concluded that he did not discriminate against anyone.

Reed recounted in his 2014 State of the City Address that he “begged” Cochran to return to Atlanta in 2010 from his job as U.S. fire administrator in the Obama administration. Cochran agreed, and the city council confirmed him to serve a second time as the city’s fire chief, a job Cochran originally held from 2008 to 2009.

In 2012, Fire Chief Magazine named Cochran “Fire Chief of the Year.” In a city news release issued about the award, Reed thanked Cochran for his “pioneering efforts to improve performance and service within the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department,” applauded “Chief Cochran and all of Atlanta’s brave firefighters for the commitment to excellence shown throughout the department,” and recognized that Cochran’s “national recognition” as Fire Chief of the Year was “much-deserved.”

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