The University of Tennessee is shelling out $50,000 to a former WUTC Chattanooga reporter who was fired in March after she angered state lawmakers.
Jacqui Helbert said she was satisified with Thursday's settlement and harbored no ill will toward the university or WUTC, a National Public Radio station licensed by UT at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Moving forward, Helbert said, she hopes university-owned media stations continue to push for editorial independence.
"That way, the ability of reporters ... to report accurate news is unencumbered by popular opinion and marketing," said Helbert, who recently worked on a story for Georgia Public Radio about President Trump's tariff policy. "These matters are critically important to me, to a free press, and I will continue to advocate for editorial integrity and firewalls between the editorial and marketing functions of university- owned radio stations."
UTC, which denied any liability in the incident, said it values "high journalistic standards." WUTC has since developed editorial integrity standards to prevent undue influence from the university, according to the settlement release.
UTC fired Helbert on March 21 after she reported and produced a story for WUTC that followed a group of Cleveland High School students on their trip to the state capitol to meet with Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, about Tennessee's transgender bathroom bill. The legislation, which died in a Senate panel, would have required students in public schools to use the bathroom that matches the sex listed on their birth certificates.
As the lawmakers spoke to students, Helbert wore her NPR press badge and carried bulky radio-reporting gear, including a 22-inch fuzzy microphone she pointed toward the discussion. Helbert believed their statements were on the record and quoted Bell, a bill supporter, as he 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 court documents.
Bell complained Helbert didn't properly identify herself as a journalist, and Helbert's attorneys said that wasn't the true reason for her termination.
"Rather ... UTC intentionally sacrificed a reporter, Ms. Helbert, because she accurately reported the inflammatory and embarrassing words of one legislator and the truthful but unpopular words of another," her attorneys wrote, "then along with her superiors, defended her actions to UTC."
Emails between top UTC officials showed pressure from lawmakers influenced Chancellor Steve Angle's decision to fire Helbert, since he feared the story would prompt them to withhold funding from the university, the Times Free Press reported in April.
In 2016, UTC contributed more than $510,000 to WUTC.
UTC declined to comment beyond Thursday's settlement announcement, and Bell and Brooks could not be reached for comment.
In March, top NPR officials urged the university and WUTC to reach an agreement that ensures the station's editorial independence. Mark Memmott, the standards and practices editor at NPR, said Thursday the station's new editorial integrity policy "seems noteworthy and fits with what we were suggesting should happen."
Memmott pointed to one line in particular in the policy: "WUTC operates in the public interest by serving the needs of its audience with editorial independence from University administration and the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees."
Others said that's a nice first step, but they hope WUTC's reporting structure changes.
"They need to report to someone at that university who has nothing to do with the public relations department," said Adam Ragusea, a journalist in residence at Mercer University who used to work in public radio. "Other university stations have figured this out.
"There are stations where the manager reports to the dean of the journalism school at the university. There are university stations where the manager reports to the provost, and those provosts deal with the issue of academic freedom and publishing and editorial independence all the time."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.