Emails obtained by Chattanooga Times Free Press reveal that the chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga pressed for the firing of Jacqui Helbert, the former WUTC reporter who is suing over her recent dismissal.
According to the emails, Chancellor Steve Angle “argues Helbert should be fired, not suspended, for failing to announce herself as a reporter when recording lawmakers,” the paper reported. He was concerned that state lawmakers would cut the university’s funding after Helbert reported for WUTC on a meeting between high school students and legislators.
The university holds WUTC’s license and subsidizes the station’s operations.
Helbert produced a story about the students’ conversation with lawmakers about a proposed transgender bathroom bill. The story aired on WUTC but the version posted on WUTC’s website was later removed. Helbert was criticized, and later dismissed, for not announcing herself as a journalist during the meetings, despite reports that she was carrying large radio recording equipment and a WUTC lanyard.
But the emails reveal different considerations in decisions regarding Helbert’s conduct. “The potential repercussions for the state representative and UTC are HUGE,” Angle wrote in one of the March 20 emails obtained by the paper. “We could easily lose all funding we are providing to WUTC.”
Last week, Helbert filed a lawsuit against the university, the station’s general manager and the marketing official who fired her, claiming that her freedom of speech and press rights under the Tennessee Constitution had been violated, among other complaints. The defendants “acted with deliberate indifference to her rights through intimidation and, eventually, termination of employment,” according to the lawsuit. “The actions were taken based on the content of her news story and they chilled her constitutional rights.”
The legal complaint demands that Helbert be reinstated to her job and seeks an “apology, education and training about the laws violated, lost wages, harm for the emotional distress from the retaliatory firing, reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.” She seeks a maximum of $1 million in damages.
In a university-wide email Thursday, Angle defended the dismissal. “The failure of a WUTC reporter to readily identify herself as such, to state her affiliation with the radio station, and to acknowledge that she was working for WUTC to report on a high school group’s legislative day on Capitol Hill is the source of concerns on which the decision is based.”
“The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga will not dictate WUTC’s coverage or content, but it will require anyone employed as a reporter to acknowledge that clearly with potential sources and in the news gathering process,” he added.
The university has received wide criticism for its firing of Helbert.
Journalism ethicist Indira Lakshmanan described reports linking Helbert’s dismissal to pressure from lawmakers as troubling. “I haven’t personally reported the facts, but if that is the case, it would seem to be a worrying case of censorship based on political and financial pressures, and a breach of press freedoms and editorial independence by a university that licenses a public radio station,” she wrote in an email to Current.
“Lawmakers should know that any meeting with members of the public is open and on the record unless otherwise agreed,” Lakshmanan added, pointing to the Tennessee Open Meetings Act. Lakshmanan is the Newmark chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute.
In a statement last week, two of NPR’s top news executives said that the university was wrong to make the decision to fire Helbert. They called on the university and WUTC to “reach an agreement that ensures the station’s editorial independence in the future.”
In this week’s edition of The Pub, host Adam Ragusea argues that Helbert’s firing is a “cautionary tale about the hazards of universities controlling public broadcasters.”