Judge: Rules cited in fire chief's firing not constitutional

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ATLANTA (AP) — Rules cited in the dismissal of an Atlanta fire chief that require city employees to get pre-clearance for outside employment are not constitutional, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

But U.S. District Judge Leigh May ruled in the city's favor on a number of other constitutional issues raised by former chief Kelvin Cochran in a lawsuit filed against the city and Mayor Kasim Reed.

Cochran's dismissal in January 2015 came after he wrote a book called "Who Told You That You Were Naked?" for a men's Bible study. Cochran self-published the book in late 2013 and gave it to some subordinates at work.

The book includes passages that say gay people and those who have sex outside of marriage are "naked," meaning they are wicked, ungodly sinners. Cochran claimed he was fired because of his religious beliefs.

May wrote that the city did not retaliate against Cochran in violation of his rights to free speech or free association. The judge also wrote that the city did not discriminate against him based on his viewpoint, did not violate his right to free exercise of religion, and did not violate his due process rights.

But she ruled that the city's pre-clearance rules could stifle speech unconstitutionally and that they failed to define the standards to be used when judging a potential conflict of interest.

An assistant chief who had been given a copy of the book raised concerns in October 2014 about some of the book's statements on homosexuality, especially since Cochran clearly identified himself in the book as Atlanta's fire chief.

The following month, Reed suspended Cochran for 30 days without pay to discipline him for selling his book without providing proper notice or obtaining written approval, city attorneys have said. The city law department also opened an investigation into whether Cochran had improperly imposed his views in the workplace. Cochran was told not to make public comments on his suspension, city attorneys have said.

But Cochran spoke out, saying publicly that he'd been fired for his religious beliefs. He also helped organize a public relations campaign to challenge his suspension, leading to the mayor receiving more than 17,000 angry emails, some of them using racial slurs, city attorneys have said.

Both sides claimed victory Wednesday.

"The significance of this claim is actually very broad because it has profound implications for other employees in the city of Atlanta," said Kevin Theriot, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Cochran.

May's ruling shows that it's unconstitutional to require a city employee to get pre-clearance to write a book or speak outside of work and to get paid for that effort, Theriot said in a phone interview.

"Now that rule is gone," he said. "So I think from a broad, First Amendment, free speech perspective, this is a very significant ruling for the employees of Atlanta."

Theriot said the parties now need to get together to decide what is owed Cochran in terms of damages on the claims he won and present an order to the judge.

But the city sees May's ruling differently. City attorney Jeremy Berry said in an emailed statement that the city looks forward to demonstrating at trial the need for and propriety of its conflict of interest and outside employment pre-clearance rules.

Berry also said the ruling signifies that Reed acted lawfully and appropriately in firing Cochran. He applauded the judge for deciding in the city's favor on major constitutional issues.

"This lawsuit was never about religious beliefs or the First Amendment," Berry said. "Rather, it is an employment matter involving an executive in charge of more than 1,100 firefighters and tasked to lead by example."

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