A WUTC reporter fired after she angered several state lawmakers with her reporting has filed suit against the university in Hamilton County circuit court, asking for her job back and for damages of up to $1 million.
Jacqui Helbert, a reporter for WUTC, a National Public Radio station licensed by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, was terminated from her job last week after several state lawmakers said she had quoted them in a story without identifying herself as a reporter.
In the lawsuit, filed Thursday afternoon, Helbert states that the real reason she was fired was that UTC officials had been warned by state lawmakers that they would withhold funding for the university unless Helbert was disciplined.
Helbert was fired "because she accurately reported the inflammatory and embarrassing words of one legislator and the truthful but unpopular words of another," the lawsuit states. "Sadly, UTC chose self-preservation through retaliation over honesty."
In her story, Helbert quoted Sen. Mike Bell as supporting a so-called "bathroom bill" that would require transgender students to use a bathroom which matches the sex on their birth certificate.
Bell said he was a strong supporter of the bill, and cited a news story about a transgender person from Oregon who "demanded to be placed in a female prison and after three months they had to take him out because he was having sex with all of the female prisoners," according to the lawsuit.
Bell continued by asking "how do you define it? Is it how I feel on Monday? [What if] I feel different on Tuesday? And on Wednesday I might feel like a dog," the lawsuit states.
He added, "My office mate is a doctor who thinks it's all hogwash," according to the lawsuit.
After the story was published, Bell objected, saying Helbert did not identify herself as a reporter. Helbert conceded that she did not state that she was a reporter in the meeting with Bell but believed it was obvious given that she was wearing headphones and a WUTC nametag and carrying a large microphone.
UTC spokesman Chuck Cantrell declined comment, stating that "University policy does not discuss ongoing litigation."