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Jacqui Helbert, a former reporter for a WUTC-FM radio station at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, speaks to media during a student protest on Wednesday afternoon. Helbert was released from her duties at the radio station after state lawmakers complained she failed to disclose her presence during a meeting on a state transgender bathroom bill.
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A WUTC reporter fired after she angered state lawmakers has amended her lawsuit against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, adding Chancellor Steven Angle as an individual defendant.

UTC fired Jacqui Helbert, a reporter for WUTC, the National Public Radio affiliate, after state lawmakers complained she did not properly identify herself while reporting on a story in March about Tennessee's transgender bathroom bill.

Emails between UTC top officials show that lawmaker pressure influenced Angle's decision to fire Helbert, as he feared the story would prompt lawmakers to withhold funding from the university.

Helbert's lawsuit claims UTC, Angle and George Heddleston, senior associate vice chancellor of marketing and communication at the university, used her firing as a sacrifice to lawmakers after she reported the "inflammatory words of one legislator and the truthful but unpopular words of another."

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Steve Angle
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"... Instead of standing up to fear of blackmail and standing up for freedom of the press, Defendants Angle, Heddleston, and UTC paid the blackmail forward, retaliating against Ms. Helbert," the lawsuit claims.

The story Helbert reported and produced for WUTC followed a group of Cleveland High School students as they went to meet with Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, to discuss the state's transgender bathroom bill.

Helbert maintains she was wearing an NPR press badge and carrying bulky radio reporting gear, including a 22-inch fuzzy microphone she pointed at the lawmakers as they spoke about the legislation in early March. But Bell and Brooks told the Times Free Press they never noticed a reporter was in the room and were frustrated to hear a story was aired about the meeting they thought was private.

UTC officials have maintained Helbert was fired because she failed to follow journalism ethics. But NPR officials said UTC should not have fired Helbert and urged the university and WUTC to reach an agreement that ensures the station's editorial independence.

In the lawsuit, filed in Hamilton County Circuit Court, Helbert asks for her job back, a jury trial and damages of up to $1 million, claiming the defendants violated her right to free speech and retaliated against her through intimidation and termination.

The lawsuit claims Heddleston's emails show "his own moral outrage about the content of the WUTC story."

In an email dated March 21, Heddleston writes: "No reporter can use our news outlet, no matter what the circumstance, to espouse what is obviously a personal belief regarding a topical issue, or national scope or otherwise. Her approach to the coverage in Nashville was completely unethical."

The lawsuit claims the email shows Heddleston's lack of regard "for free press or avoidance of government censorship when it comes to WUTC reporting on matter which [may] be unpopular from the standpoint of UTC public relations ... this email demonstrates that Defendant Heddleston clearly thought UTC must control matters of WUTC's editorial independence and coverage of stories which he deemed unpopular."

The emails also show Angle ultimately asked for Helbert to be fired and for a letter of reprimand to be sent to Michael Miller, WUTC's news director, in connection with the incident.

"Michael Miller needs to keep quiet and toe the line on this," Angle writes in an email dated March 21. "We cannot control [Helbert,] but he should not cause problems."

Angle and Heddleston were previously colleagues at Wright State University. Angle was named chancellor at UTC in 2013, and hired Heddleston to be one of his top advisers at UTC in February of this year.

Chuck Cantrell, associate vice chancellor for communication and marketing at UTC, said Tuesday the university does not comment on cases that are in ongoing litigation.

Cantrell was named in the original lawsuit but was not included in the amended filing.

Monday marked the first day of WUTC's semi-annual pledge drive.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at krainwater@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.

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