Friday, March 31, 2017

Chattanooga Radio: Fired WUTC Journalist Sues University

Fired reporter Jacqui Helbert is suing the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga over her termination from the campus’s public radio station, WUTC 88.1 FM.

Jacqui Helbert
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Hamilton County Circuit Court, Helbert asks for "reinstatement, apology, education and training about the laws violated, lost wages, harm for the emotional distress from the retaliatory firing, reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs, and any further relief appropriate to the circumstances," up to $1 million in damages.

According to Nashville Scene, the university and and two employees, senior associate vice chancellor of marketing and communications George Heddleston and associate vice chancellor of marketing and communications Chuck Cantrell, are named as defendants.

“Clearly I believe I was fired for reporting a story of important public interest that did not sit well with lawmakers,” Helbert says in a prepared statement.

Lawyer Justin Gilbert says that in addition to seeking justice for Helbert, the suit is about transparency.

The lawsuit repeats the timeline of Helbert’s travel to Legislative Plaza with the Cleveland High School Gay-Straight Alliance and the interviews with Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) and Rep. Kevin Brooks (R-Cleveland), who both claim to have not noticed Helbert was a reporter, despite her headphones, shotgun microphone, press pass and WUTC-branded tote bag for her equipment.

Students asked Bell and Brooks their opinion of the transgender bathroom bill, and Helbert recorded a story featuring their comments. According to her story, Bell’s comments made some students cry, as he compared being transgender to deciding one day to “feel like a dog.” However, Brooks was very sympathetic to the students and stated that he probably would not support the bathroom bill.

Reportedly, after the story aired, Brooks expressed concerns over it to Bell, who then contacted the station and also contacted Sen. Todd Gardenhire, who represents parts of Chattanooga and Bradley County. Gardenhire reportedly then contacted UTC.

The lawsuit also adds more details that make it clear WUTC staff all thought legislators had threatened to pull funding from the station and the university.

NPR released a statement at the beginning of the week that confirmed WUTC staff had nothing to do with Helbert's firing, stating, in part, "[W]e at NPR believe the decisions should have been left to the journalists in charge. Taking the decisions about enforcing ethics out of their hands did more to undermine the station's credibility than the original infraction. This chain of events underscores why it is critical that newsrooms such as that at WUTC not be subject to pressure from the institutions that hold their licenses, the sponsors who give them financial support or the politicians who sometimes don't like the stories they hear or read."

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