The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga fired a reporter this week at WUTC, the National Public Radio affiliate, after local lawmakers complained about how she reported on a state transgender bathroom bill.
Jacqui Helbert, 32, reported and produced the story for WUTC, which followed a group of Cleveland High School students as they traveled to the state capital March 7 to meet with Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, about the legislation.
The students were advocating against the bathroom bill, which would force Tennessee students to use restrooms and locker rooms matching the gender listed on their birth certificates, offering no exception for transgender students. The bill failed to make it out of the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, but is likely to be tweaked and reintroduced later this session.
The story aired on WUTC March 9 and 13, and was posted on the station's website. After it was posted, the lawmakers said Helbert failed to properly identify herself as a reporter during the meetings.
Helbert maintains she acted within journalistic ethics as she reported the story, and she never concealed her intentions or bulky radio equipment. She did not verbally identify herself as a journalist.
"It was glaringly obvious who I was," Helbert said, adding that her NPR press pass hung around her neck while at the capitol.
Helbert said she was wearing headphones and pointing a 22-inch large fuzzy microphone at the lawmakers as they spoke during the meeting.
"I even had to fumble with all my equipment to shake Bell's hand," Helbert said.
Bell did not return a request for comment Friday.
But Brooks said he was never given explicit notification that a reporter was in the meeting and what he shared with the students was personal — not for the public. The reporter must have been hidden in the crowd of high-schoolers, he said.
"I don't recall anyone having recording gear at all, or anyone looking or feeling like a reporter," Brooks said Friday. "I was meeting with kids. These were young children."
Patrick Pyott, a Cleveland High School senior who went on the trip, said Helbert was clearly a reporter based on the equipment she was using, noting how she held out a large microphone throughout the conversation.
"It would be hard to miss her with what she was wearing," Pyott said.
On March 17, UTC officials met with Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, to talk about business not related to the bathroom bill, according to a statement from George Heddleston, senior associate vice chancellor of marketing and communications for UTC.
At the end of the official meeting, Gardenhire mentioned the WUTC story and said "he had issues with the journalistic ethics of the reporter," Heddleston wrote in the statement to the Times Free Press.
During this conversation, at least one lawmaker mentioned the state provides funding to UTC, Heddleston said.
In 2016, UTC contributed more than $510,000 to WUTC.
In a statement posted on WUTC's Facebook page Friday, Heddleston said: "The University's decision to release the employee from the station was based on a violation of journalism ethics. We believe the newsgathering process must be conducted in a manner that instills trust in the public. Failure to do so undermines journalistic credibility just as much as inaccurate information. We strive to maintain the faith of our listeners and the community we serve."
Lawmakers voted last year to strip state funding for UT-Knoxville's Office for Diversity and Inclusion, demanding the campus be punished for its annual "Sex Week" student activities, as well as controversies over the diversity office's suggested use of gender-neutral pronouns and avoiding the word "Christmas" in holiday party announcements. Gardenhire sponsored the bill.
Gardenhire did not return multiple requests for comment Friday. Watson and Hazlewood also did not return a request for comment about the meeting.
Heddleston fired Helbert on Tuesday, and WUTC removed the story from its website.
In Helbert's termination letter, Heddleston states: "A review of the matter was conducted and it has been concluded that you did not identify yourself properly as a journalist."
Michael Miller, news director for WUTC, did not return requests for comment Friday.
NPR member stations like WUTC are independently owned and operated, and a spokesman for NPR said all questions about editorial decisions should be directed to WUTC.
Helbert said she's concerned about how lawmakers and UTC are controlling the press, noting that the meeting she reported on was public and involved about 20 high school students.
"If the politicians can threaten to withhold money from the University and control the reporters, it totally discounts having [the] press," she said. "... the fact that lawmakers seem to be emboldened to bully people until they get their way and censor the press is just absurd."
This story was last updated March 24 at 6:39 p.m. with a statement from WUTC.