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State lawmakers respond to ex-WUTC reporter's claims

On March 21st, Jacqui Helbert was terminated from 88.1 WUTC-FM. She says her supervisors suggested lawmakers influenced UTC to fire her, but some of those lawmakers say that isn't true. (Image: WTVC)

Jacqui Helbert was a reporter for WUTC-FM, an NPR radio station on UTC's campus. She blames lawmakers for losing her job, but those representatives say they had nothing to do with it.

Last week, Helbert published a story about a group of Cleveland High School students meeting with two Tennessee state lawmakers about two different transgender bills going through the legislature. In Helbert's story, you can hear Sen. Mike Bell engage in conversation about the psychology of transgenders, saying he had an office mate who "thinks it's all hogwash." Afterward, the students visited Representative Kevin Brooks, who talked over both bills, and explained how one of them will not make it out of committee because it is poorly written.

After Helbert aired the story on 88.1 WUTC-FM, she was fired from the station, because lawmakers say she failed to clearly identify herself as a journalist, which is a violation of their reporting ethics. Helbert argued that allegation.

"I wore my gear almost the whole time," she said. "I took it off a couple times because it was raining when we were walking outside. My press pass I did keep on the whole time."

On Monday, Rep. Brooks said he only agreed to meet with one student, and was shocked to find several show up to his Nashville Office. He said he never knew a reporter was part of that group, and wouldn't have shared personal information about his family if he did.

"I was very disappointed on how the circumstances related to the meeting were broadcast without permission, without knowledge, without any acknowledgement," Rep. Brooks said.

After her termination, Helbert became vocal about her story. She claims supervisors told her lawmakers were unhappy with her coverage, and later visited the UTC Chancellor's office to make threats to withhold funds from UTC.

Brooks says he wasn't part of that process.

"There was no conversation of funding whatsoever. They made an inquiry to get my side of the story."

WUTC removed the story from its website, but an archived version still exists. You can hear the audio story and read the web copy here.

A website, shameonutc.org, formed since the story broke. A Facebook event says Helbert will lead a rally Wednesday afternoon, and speak near the WUTC studios.

Senator Mark Bell released a statement on Monday, saying:

"The day of the meeting, about 20 students and a faculty advisor came in my office. I did notice one of the students had headphones on. I had absolutely no idea there was anyone in my office but high school students and one faculty advisor. I'm in no way involved in the hiring and firing of employees at WUTC. Any questions regarding the employment practices I would refer to The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga."

NPR's Michael Oreskes and Mark Memmott released a statement on monday that reads, in part:

The University of Tennessee Chattanooga has said the decision to terminate the employment of reporter Jacqui Helbert was made by university officials, not the news editors at WUTC. The station's news staff says the decision to remove from WUTC's website the story that Helbert had done about meetings held by state legislators with students from a Gay-Straight Alliance Club was also made by university officials, not WUTC's editors.

You can read the full statement at the link here.

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