A former Morning Edition host for South Dakota Public Broadcasting has filed a wrongful termination appeal against the state network.
Stel Kline, who is transgender and uses they/them pronouns, relocated to Vermillion, S.D., in October to host statewide broadcasts of NPR’s newsmagazine. Six months later, they are challenging their dismissal over issues of objectivity and social media use.
“My position has been terminated despite being told there was nothing for me to improve on at a recent quarterly review,” Kline said in an April 18 Twitter thread sharing details of their firing and work experience at SDPB. “I was told the reasoning is that I am not objective and have a problem with authority. (compliments in my book, lol).”
The appeal is an administrative process that started with Kline sending a letter to the division director of SDPB, the deputy commissioner of the South Dakota Bureau of Information and the institution administrator. Kline received a reply email from the division director, SDPB Executive Director Julie Overgaard, last week, they told Current.
The process allows 14 days from receipt of the email to take the appeal to the “agency head.” That would be Jeff Clines, commissioner of South Dakota’s Bureau of Information and Telecommunications, according to Fritz Miller, SDPB director of programming and communication.
Miller declined to comment on Kline’s termination or the appeal.
“Personnel information is limited by state law to salary and routine directory information. As this is a personnel matter, we are unable to make any further statement,” Miller said in an email to Current.
Kline had interned at WYPR in Baltimore and worked as a freelance producer in the Washington, D.C., region, according to a profile on SDPB’s website. They moved to South Dakota from Baltimore for the new job.
Shortly before Kline began hosting Morning Edition, Miller expressed concerns about an announcement of their hiring — specifically the use of they/them pronouns and a reference to Kline’s drag name — to be published in SDPB’s member magazine. Miller told Katy Beem, the magazine’s editor, to remove they/them pronouns and Kline’s drag name from the announcement before publication. In a screenshot of the email obtained by Current and verified by a source with direct knowledge, Miller wrote that he was concerned about how SDPB’s audience would react.
“I’m suggesting that we dump the ‘they’ pronouns and use their last name throughout the article,” Miller wrote. “… I understand and appreciate that Stel is comfortable with sharing that information, and is doing what they can to live their true self, but I fear that the more hate-mongering segment of our population will seize upon this stuff and make it the issue du jour.”
Beem said she told Miller that removing the pronouns was not her decision and he should speak with Kline directly.
“[Miller’s] His response to that initial introductory article, which was clearly incredibly important to Stel, was very much starting off on the wrong foot,” Beem said. “I felt it was unnecessary, that it was creating an atmosphere for Stel that was going to exacerbate the anxiety and isolation.”
Later that day, Kline confronted Miller and asked why he wanted to remove their pronouns from the article. Cara Hetland, who hired and supervised Kline as SDPB’s director of journalism content, interjected that the third–person plural pronouns could confuse older audience members, according to Kline. The article ran as originally written with Kline’s pronouns.
Kline described their reaction to the exchange in their April 18 Twitter thread: “But through this very first day on the job, it was just glaringly evident to me that personal bias clouds judgment in this workplace.”
In January 2022, Hetland told Kline in a quarterly review that they had nothing to improve upon in their performance, Kline said. But during the meeting in which Kline was fired, Hetland pointed to Kline’s retweet of a Dec. 1, 2021, tweet by an NPR journalist as an example of inappropriate social media use.
The tweet, posted by NPR journalist Natalie Escobar and referring to the Supreme Court’s hearing in the Mississippi abortion law that day, featured a picture of a sign with text stating “women are not the only people who get abortions.”
SDPB’s communications team had encouraged Kline to create a public Twitter account and share their experiences in South Dakota, Kline noted in their Twitter thread. “But, bc [because] I am trans I have been verbally harassed. When I have shared this, the director of journalism content tells me I have lost credibility. That I am not objective.”
Kline’s termination echoes the firing of Lewis Wallace, a trans independent journalist who went public with his account of being fired by Marketplace in 2017. That termination followed Wallace’s decision to publish a Medium post declaring the death of traditional objectivity in journalism.
“The gist of it was more or less exactly what Stel’s tweets are about, which is that neutrality isn’t real, that it generally is just a representation of the standpoint of the powerful,” Wallace said in an interview with Current. “Basically my point was, journalists should stand up, and objectivity is acting as a kind of false obstacle. That’s not really winning the kind of trust that we think it is, but it also isn’t winning us the safety and inclusivity that we need in order to continue to thrive.”
This article has been revised to remove a reference to transgender identification and correct references to pronouns.