Atlanta coughs up $1.2 million to former fire chief in religious-liberty case

“Was a city employee fired over faith or prejudice?” asks the anchor for WXIA, NBC’s affiliate in Atlanta. The city of Atlanta finally admitted — tacitly, anyway — that it was over faith, and also free speech. When fire chief Kelvin Cochran published a book on faith that he had written on his own time, the mayor sacked Cochran over his criticism of homosexuality. Cochran spent the last three years fighting back, and yesterday Atlanta threw in the towel:

Former Mayor Kasim Reed fired Cochran in 2015 after he published a controversial book that called homosexuality “unclean,” “a sexual perversion”, “vulgar”, and “inappropriate.”

Shortly after he was fired, Cochran filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and the mayor, claiming he was discriminated against because of his religious faith. …

After a lengthy legal battle, the council voted to settle the lawsuit at a total of $1.2 million during an Oct. 15 council meeting.

As WXIA notes, even the city’s own investigation into Cochran never revealed any hint of discrimination or bigotry in Cochran’s job performance. The city was in court this week arguing that it was about “trust,” but they must have gotten some sense that the argument wasn’t going to fly with the judge. An earlier ruling over their demand to pre-clear speech unrelated to job performance had already been thrown out as unconstitutional, which didn’t leave the city much cover for the rest of the lawsuit. Later that evening, the city council voted to pay the seven-figure settlement to Cochran as a means to get out from under what could have been a more significant penalty.

Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Cochran in his legal fight, declared victory later last night:

“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.

It’s a significant victory for free speech and against viewpoint discrimination regardless of one’s opinions on what Cochran wrote. The imposition of speech codes outside of office is anathema to the First Amendment and the free exchange of ideas. The idea that government has the right to pre-clear unrelated speech about religious faith and morals is a direct path to totalitarianism. Atlanta’s efforts to impose a gag on religious expression and free speech unrelated to job performance should have ended three years ago.

For those unfamiliar with the Cochran case, ADF provided this primer in 2015.