In recent weeks, free speech has been a topic at the forefront of fierce debate, both domestically and abroad. From Black Lives Matter protests being called anti-police “propaganda” to French magazine Charlie Hebdo’s Islamophobic and racist images being called irreverent “satire,” who is allowed to say what, and where and when they are allowed to say it, has been central to discussions about not only free speech but also the cultures from which that speech extends.
It is in this sociopolitical climate that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s firing of Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran has begun to make ripples beyond the Peach State.
Reed fired Cochran on Jan. 6 as a result of homo-antagonistic language in Cochran’s 2013 book, Who Told You That You Were Naked? In it, Cochran describes homosexuality as “vile” and “the opposite of purity” and goes on to compare it to “all other forms of sexual perversion.”
Upon learning about the book late last year, Reed initially suspended Cochran, who had also gifted several firefighters with the book. And while Cochran has framed his subsequent termination in general terms as a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech and religion, Reed’s stated reasons for termination were much more specific: 1) Cochran didn’t get clearance through the city’s ethics committee prior to publishing the book—something Cochran vehemently denies; 2) Some of the language contained in the book is offensive to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community; and 3) It leaves the city vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits.
To anyone familiar with the concept of separation of church and state, Reed’s decision to fire Cochran is the only logical one. Cochran clearly believes that his personal beliefs, no matter how potentially offensive they may be to colleagues and constituents, should be prioritized over the ethics that govern his public position. And that expectation of religious privilege further troubles the muddy political waters.
In a statement released by the Alliance Defending Freedom, Cochran, falling back on religion, said, “I am heartbroken that I will no longer be able to serve the city and the people I love as fire chief, for no reason other than my Christian faith.” He added, “It’s ironic that the city points to tolerance and inclusion as part of its reasoning. What could be more intolerant and exclusionary than ending a public servant’s 30 years of distinguished service for his religious beliefs?”
And many Christian Atlantans have followed his lead. Hundreds gathered on Tuesday in the urban mecca to say that Cochran should keep his job based on his right to express his beliefs. But this framing of the reasons for his firing reflects a misunderstanding of the ways in which public service operates, and/or the misguided belief that one’s personal faith always takes precedence over the diverse communities that one serves as a public servant.
I won’t spend time here debating what I see as any number of hypocrisies in Christian doctrine.
The bottom line here is this: Cochran was in a public position of community trust. His decision to publish a book with clear homophobic language in his capacity as Atlanta’s fire chief, and then distribute it to city employees under his supervision, overstepped the boundary between his right to his own views and his role as a city official. The case isn’t about his right to his private views.
Let’s look at it a different way.
In this case we’re talking about a black mayor and a black fire chief, but let’s say that a white Christian fire chief were to write a book that included his stated belief that black people are descendants of Ham and thus the curse of Canaan, and should be enslaved forever. He doesn’t discriminate against African Americans on the job, but every African-American employee knows how he feels about them—not to mention the African-American residents in the city.
Could that hypothetical fire chief represent the best interests of that city? Should African-American taxpayers pay his salary? Could they trust that the same measures taken to save white citizens would be taken to save their lives if there are firefighters who share that chief’s beliefs?
The commonsense answer is, “No.”
Within the bubble of personal faith, what sounds “pure” to one person may read as bigotry, homophobia, racism, sexism or xenophobia to others. And Cochran, a 30-year veteran in the public sphere, should know that his Christian faith—and his interpretation of it—does not grant him immunity from ethical standards set by a city for its employees, including the head of a department.
Free speech isn’t free when taxpayers are paying for it. It’s really as simple as that.