Atlanta to Pay $1.2 Million to Former Fire Chief After Alleged Free Speech Violation

October 17, 2018 Updated: October 17, 2018

The city of Atlanta agreed to a settlement that will pay former Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran $1.2 million after he sued the city, alleging that he was fired over a free speech issue.

Cochran wrote a book about his Christian faith in 2013 and gave it to around a dozen subordinates that he said either requested the copies or shared his beliefs, reported Fox 5. In the book, Cochran discussed his views on sexuality, based on his faith.

The city became aware of the issue and suspended Cochran, ordering him to undergo “sensitivity training”, but he declined. Mayor Kasim Reed then fired him, saying the chief had violated policy by promoting the book on the job.

Cochran filed a federal lawsuit against Reed and the city, saying his free speech and due process rights had been violated. He said Reed damaged his reputation and that he wouldn’t be able to get another job in the firefighting industry. He also called for a judge to reinstate him and give him back pay.

“Given my history and work throughout my career and with the city of Atlanta, I was shocked that writing a book and encouraging Christian men to be the husbands and fathers and men that God had called us to be, would jeopardize my 34-year career,” he said.

A campaign to get Cochran reinstated led to some 17,000 people contacting Reed, the court said.

Court Finding and Settlement

A city spokesperson told Fox that the settlement was recommended by its legal counsel after the findings of the court could have led to a multimillion-dollar payout.

U.S. District Judge, Leigh May, ruled in Cochran’s favor (pdf) in one aspect of the case in December 2017—the city rules cited in the termination were too broad, and restricted non-work speech.

“The government can’t force its employees to get its permission before engaging in free speech,” said Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, in a statement at the time.

“In addition, as the court found, the city can’t leave such decisions to the whims of government officials. This ruling benefits not only Chief Cochran, but also other employees who want to write books or speak about matters unrelated to work. Atlanta can no longer force them to get permission or deny them permission just because certain officials disagree with the views expressed.”

Some other aspects of the case were ruled in the city’s favor, reported the Associated Press. For instance, May wrote that the city didn’t retaliate against Cochran in violation of his free speech rights or his right to free exercise of religion.

Theriot hailed the settlement, saying: “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.”


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