Federal judge rules in case of fired Atlanta fire chief; both sides claim victory

By David Pendered

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration claimed a victory Wednesday in the legal battle over his decision to terminate the employment of then Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran. As did Cochran’s attorney. But the case won’t conclude until after Reed has left office.

A federal judge issued a ruling Wednesday in the case filed against Atlanta by former Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran.
File photo

U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May gave the two sides 30 days to file papers saying what parts of their issues still remain given the nature of the court order, according to the ruling.

Both sides worked quickly to promote their view about a ruling that upheld the city’s right to terminate Cocharn’s employment because he, “does not have a property interest in his employment.” This is the reason Atlanta claimed victory.

However, the judge ruled that the city’s policies on non-work speech are unconstitutional. This is where Cochran’s lawyer claimed victory. This part of the ruling seemingly would include the book by Cochran, a devout Christian, in which he condemned homosexual acts and suggested that mankind’s problems could have been avoided if Eve had told the serpent to ask Adam if they should eat the apple, and an angry Adam had killed the snake, in the biblical Garden of Eden.

Reed fired Cochran in January 2015, citing a book Cochran had written that condemned homosexual acts as, “vile, vulgar and inappropriate.”

Reed’s office issued at 5:44 p.m. the following statement from Jeremy Berry, city attorney:

  • “We are pleased that Judge Leigh Martin May ruled today that Mayor Reed acted lawfully and appropriately in terminating Mr. Cochran’s employment.
  • “This lawsuit was never about religious beliefs or the First Amendment. Rather, it is an employment matter involving an executive in charge of more than 1,100 firefighters and tasked to lead by example.
  • “The City is pleased that Judge May found in the City’s favor on all major constitutional issues, and specifically rejected Mr. Cochran’s claim that the City violated his due process and other First Amendment rights of freedom of association, free speech, and free exercise of religion.
  • “With respect to the single question remaining – whether the City’s conflict of interest and outside employment pre-clearance ordinances are appropriate – the City looks forward to demonstrating the need and propriety of these ordinances at trial.”
Kevin Theriot

Kevin Theriot

Cochran’s lawyer issued a statement on the website of Alliance Defending Freedom. The conservative legal organization, based in Arizona, represents Cochran and describes itself as: “an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.”

ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot said in the statement:

  • “The government can’t force its employees to get its permission before engaging in free speech. 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.”

ADF’s statement observed:

  • “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.’”

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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