Reporter files lawsuit after getting sacked for accurately reporting what a politician said
A public radio reporter who was sacked after pressure from Republican lawmakers has filed a lawsuit against her former employer.
The controversy blew up in Tennessee after reporter Jacqui Helbert of public radio station WUTC posted an online report featuring comments from state Senator Mike Bell on Tennessee’s proposed anti-transgender ‘bathroom bill’.
The lawmaker claimed gender identity is “all hogwash”, adding: “Is it how I feel on Monday? I feel different on Tuesday? Wednesday I might feel like a dog.”
Bell, who made the comments in a meeting with an LGBT group alongside Ms Helbert, claimed he was not aware that she was a journalist – even though she had been holding a 14-inch long shotgun microphone while wearing press credentials, a digital recorder and radio headphones.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which owns and operates the public radio station, intervened to terminate Ms Helbert’s employment and pull down the story after Republican colleagues of Bell lodged complaints with the university’s vice chancellor.
Ms Helbert, who has been backed by National Public Radio in the row, this week filed a lawsuit against the university in Hamilton County Circuit Court.
The lawsuit alleges that “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.”
It adds: “UTC’s stated reason of lack of ‘verbal consent’ [for the interview] was not even supported by Ms. Helbert’s own superiors at WUTC.
“UTC’s deceit has harmed Ms. Helbert whose record now shows, at 32, that she was fired for violating journalistic standards in her role as a reporter. This was devastating to Ms. Helbert.”
The suit continues: “Defendants, acting under color of state law, have violated Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights and acted with deliberate indifference to her rights through intimidation and, eventually, termination of employment.
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“The actions were taken based on the content of her news story and they chilled her constitutional rights.
“The publication of the news story was constitutionally protected activity under the Tennessee constitution and Defendants retaliated against Plaintiff through intimidation and, eventually, termination of employment.
“Plaintiff seeks damages to include reinstatement, apology, education and training about the laws violated, lost wages, harm for the emotional distress from the retaliatory firing, reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs, and any further relief appropriate to the circumstances.”
The university has not yet responded.
But in a previous statement comms chief George Heddleston, who is personally named in the lawsuit, insisted: “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 instils 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.”