Emails show UT officials fired reporter in fear of funding loss in firing reporter

Email correspondence between University of Tennessee at Chattanooga top officials, obtained by the Times-Free Press, show that lawmaker pressure and a fear of losing state funding were indeed involved in the firing of WUTC reporter Jacqui Helbert.

Comments in emails appear in some respects appear to contradict earlier statements of UTC officials on the firing of Helbert, who has filed a $1 million lawsuit against the university.

“The potential repercussions for the state representative and UTC are HUGE,” UTC Chancellor Steve Angle wrote in an email on March 20. “We could easily lose all funding we are providing to WUTC.”

Angle argues Helbert should be fired, not suspended, for failing to announce herself as a reporter when recording lawmakers, in the email sent to top UTC employees and Tom Griscom, a consultant to the university. Griscom is the former executive editor and publisher of the Times Free Press. He retired from the paper in 2010.

“I do not see an offense that is much worse,” Angle writes in the email. “I feel we are gambling with the future of WUTC.”

The Times Free Press obtained the emails through a records request.

UTC fired Helbert on March 21, after she reported and produced the story for WUTC, an NPR affiliate, which followed a group of Cleveland High School students as they traveled to the state capital March 7 to meet with Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, about the state’s transgender bathroom bill.

…(In previous statements, a UTC vice chancellor) would not say which lawmaker called to complain and said he was unaware of lawmakers threatening to cut funding. In 2016, UTC contributed more than $510,000 to WUTC.

But in the emails, Angle refers to a “Todd,” and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, was one of the lawmakers that met with UTC on March 16.

Gardenhire previously told the Times Free Press that UTC handled the situation regarding Helbert before the meeting, and denied making threats to cut the school’s funding.

…(Griscom emailed his view that Helbert should be temporarily suspended, not fired, explaining) “I would like to leave some maneuver room if Todd comes back and says, no, the reporter should be fired… If we put all of our cards on the table at the start, the options are limited if he asks for more.”

Angle then responds to Griscom…  that he does not want Helbert on staff.

“Do you think Todd is going to, play games with us?” Angle continues in the email. “Let me know what you think the risks are in terminating the reporter.”

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.
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