Monday, April 3, 2017


Jacqui Helbert
Jacqui Helbert, the WUTC, Chattanooga, reporter who was fired for her reporting on Tennessee’s “bathroom bill, is suing the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) over her termination. According to reports by Nashville Scene [link], the  lawsuit was filed March 30th  in Hamilton County Circuit Court.

Helbert is asking for reinstatement, an apology, compensation for lost wages and up to $1 million in damages for the emotional distress from the retaliatory firing. The university and two employees are named as defendants.

We first reported [link] on Helbert last Wednesday (3/29). Here are the facts of the case:

On Tuesday, March 7th, Helbert traveled to the state capitol in Nashville to cover a field trip by students from a Chattanooga-area high school.  The students, members of the Cleveland High Gay-Straight Alliance Club, made the trip to voice concerns over Tennessee’s bathroom bill. The proposed legislation is similar to a controversial law enacted in North Carolina.

Helbert accompanied the students to a meeting with State Senator Mike Bell, (R-Riceville). Bell is the sponsor of Tennessee’s bathroom bill and is a well-known Culture Warrior.  When Bell was asked why he proposed the legislation and he replied, in part:

State Senator Mike Bell
"Did ya’ll see the news where there a transgender person arrested in Oregon this past summer. He was a teen. He demanded to be placed in female prison. After three months they had to take him out because he was having sex with all the female prisoners.

How do you define it [gender identity]? Is it how I feel on Monday. Or do I feel different on Tuesday. Wednesday I might feel like a dog. It doesn’t matter what I present myself as. It’s in my DNA. It’s science."

Helbert recorded the meeting and included Bell’s remarks in her story for WUTC. After the story aired on March 9th, the news went viral across the state and caused quite a stir. 

State Senator Todd Gardenhire
State Senator Bell received global criticism for his remarks. Bell then got other pro-“bathroom bill” legislators involved, including State Senator Todd Gardenhire who represents Chattanooga in the legislature.

The lawsuit alleges Gardenhire conveyed Bell’s displeasure to UTC officials. A couple of weeks later, Helbert was fired. The university said she violated ethics guidelines.

Helbert disagrees. She believes her firing was retaliation for her reporting.  She told local media:

“Clearly I believe I was fired for reporting a story of important public interest that did not sit well with lawmakers.”

You can listen to Helbert’s report here.


In the lawsuit, Helbert alleges that the embarrassed legislators had threatened to pull funding from the station and the university if Helbert was not fired. The filing states:

“After the termination, Ms. Helbert returned to WUTC where she again spoke to [news director Mike] Miller and [WUTC staffer Mary Ollie] Newman. They appeared stunned. Mr. Miller stated the termination was done purely for fear of funding cuts (retaliation/blackmail) by UTC not for any stated integrity of journalistic standards.”


According to posts on a popular public radio discussion list, the incident has already been costly for WUTC. One post said:

We’ve gotten a glut of angry phone calls and emails from listeners cancelling their sustaining membership, and the incident has damaged the station's credibility as an independent news outlet.

We've postponed our pledge drive, which was scheduled for April 17.

The credibility of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is also being questioned. A Nashville Scene reader posted this comment:

From this article I can see no wrong doing on Helbert's part. It seems that both our state reps did indeed threaten to pull funding, though one put his threat in code.

It is not a reporter's duty to protect the feelings of public officials. In fact, it is the media's duty to expose those officials' overreaching whether the officials like it or not. It is the university's duty to protect it's students from those overreaching officials. If they don't want controversy, why do they have a radio station? Or science programs? Or a religion department?

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