More than three years after it occurred, the termination of Atlanta's fire chief has been ruled unconstitutional. His attorney explains the court essentially "split the baby," ruling for his client on two claims but against on others.
Both sides have claimed victory in this case. Thursday morning on American Family Radio, ADF attorney Kevin Theriot was asked to clarify a conflicting report claiming a court ruling upheld the firing of Kelvin Cochran. (Original story appears below.)
Q: There have been some reports out there ... that say Atlanta won this and the firing has been upheld. Can you clarify exactly what the judge said?
A: Sure. So the headline that you're referring to is wrong ["Court upholds firing of former Atlanta fire chief"]. The judge did not uphold his firing. The judge found that Chief Cochran was unconstitutionally fired.
Now, she only ruled for us on two claims and that was the primary one that their policies that say you have to get permission before writing a book like Chief Cochran wrote and the primary reason they said they fired him is unconstitutional. We had several other claims – one of which that they fired him for his free speech views, another one that they fired him for his religious beliefs – and the court ruled against us on those. But as most folks understand when you file a lawsuit, you have multiple claims and the judge decided to split the baby in this one and ruled for us on a couple and ruled against us on several others.
So for the city of Atlanta to say that they won, you had someone that didn't read the opinion closely or it was misreported because it's very clear that the judge ruled for us and that means that Chief Cochran not only gets his lost wages, he gets his lost benefits, we get attorneys' fees, and it's very possible, yeah, it's still in play – one way for them to remedy the situation is to give him his job back. We'll see if that happens."
Q: Is it your impression that this ruling could have ramifications for Christian workers across the country and what freedoms they have in the job place or even when they're away from work to express their Christian views?
A: Absolutely. This is a fairly broad ruling with that regard. Obviously, it's just a trial court, so it really only applies directly to folks in the northern district of Georgia and specifically to Atlanta employees. But it sets a precedent that says that government employers have to be very careful about how they restrict the speech of their employees when they're talking about non-work related stuff, just like Chief Cochran's book didn't have anything to do with work, but nevertheless they said, 'Hey, you have to get permission first in order for you to be able to do this book.'
And not only that – the rules that they have in place allowed the government officials to grant permission for views they like but deny it if they didn't like the view. And so you're seeing that kind of thing across the country especially with social media, people doing blog posts and folks like that who are concerned about their jobs and having to make sure they run things by their employer just because of what they say on Facebook in a situation that doesn't have anything to do with their work.
A federal district court ruled today that the city's policies restricting non-work speech – like a book for Christian men that Chief Kelvin Cochran wrote – are too broad and allow city officials to unconstitutionally discriminate against views with which they disagree.
"Government officials can't force employees to get permission before engaging in free speech," says attorney Kevin Theriot of Alliance Defending Freedom, the organization representing Cochran. "As the court found, the city can't leave such decisions to the whims of government officials."
Theriot adds that the ruling benefits not only Chief Cochran but other employee 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," the attorney explains.
On his personal time, Chief Cochran wrote a 162-page devotional book that briefly mentions his Christian views on sex and marriage (see earlier story). In late 2014, 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.
"All Americans are guaranteed the freedom of actually believing and thinking in such a way that does not cost them the consequences that I've experienced in this termination," says Cochran.
The case is known as Cochran v. City of Atlanta.
12/21/2017 - Additional comments added from radio interview with ADF attorney Kevin Theriot.