ATLANTA – A federal district court ruled Wed, Dec. 20, that city of Atlanta rules which led to the termination of Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran are unconstitutional.
The court found that the city’s policies restricting non-work speech, like a book for Christian men that Cochran wrote, are too broad and allow city officials to unconstitutionally discriminate against views with which they disagree.
“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 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.”
With regard to the city’s “pre-clearance” rules, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia wrote in its 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 an 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.
— CNJ staff