Morgan Bettinger was a rising senior at the University of Virginia when she was accused by a popular student activist of making violent threats against a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020. Although a university investigation later cleared her of any wrongdoing, Bettinger still received a number of penalties.
Last week, same day as Reason published an investigation into the story, Bettinger’s attorney released a draft lawsuit against the university, claiming the school violated her First Amendment rights and committed due process violations by sanctioning her. The lawsuit has not yet been filed.
On July 17, 2020, Morgan Bettinger was driving home from work when she found the road ahead blocked by a large public works truck, with several dozen protesters gathered in the street behind. The draft case states that when she got out of her car to investigate, the truck driver struck up a casual conversation with her, with Bettinger swearing something to the effect of, “It’s a good thing you’re here, or they could speed them up. bump.” The draft of the case states that when the conversation ended, Bettinger walked around the truck and took a photograph of the protest.
As Bettinger began to walk back to her car, protesters took interest in her, following her to her car and yelling, taunting and filming her. Minutes later, another UVA student, prominent activist Zyahna Bryant, sent out several tweets claiming that Bettinger had driven around a series of police roadblocks and “approached protesters in Charlottesville and told us we were going to do ‘good speed bump’.”
However, the draft lawsuit alleges that “Bryant did not personally hear Ms. Bettinger’s comments to the truck driver” and that “Bryant first learned of the speed bump comment from a third party.” Regardless, Bryant’s claims sparked student outrage, receiving over 1,000 retweets and prompting a flurry of calls for students to lobby the administration to expel Bettinger.
In the months that followed, Bettinger would be the subject of numerous investigations into her alleged conduct. The first investigation, by the University Judiciary Committee (UJC), UVA’s entirely student-run dispensation system, found Bettinger guilty of “endangering the health or safety” of UVA students and sanctioned her to perform 50 hours of community service, meet three times with a professor had to intended to teach her about “police community relations,” write a letter of apology to Bryant, and suspension of expulsion (meaning Bettinger could continue her schooling, but if she was found guilty of a similar offense again, she would likely be expelled.)
But despite punishing her, the UJC student jury also appeared to agree with Bettinger’s version of what she said, writing: “You yourself have admitted saying ‘it’s a good thing you’re here because otherwise would these people have been speed bumps’.” Given the tragic events of August 12th and the context in which you uttered those words, you ignored the violent history of Charlottesville.”
“The UJC credited Ms. Bettinger with her own language … thereby acknowledging that her statement was directed at the driver rather than any of the protesters and was uttered in the context of a political arena,” the draft filing said. “The UJC did not find that Mrs. Bettinger either actually threatened or intended to threaten Bryant or any of the protesters with physical harm, only that her words posed a risk.”
Thus, the student jury had no legal grounds to punish her, since UVA is a public university barred from punishing students for First Amendment-protected speech, which Bettinger’s comment clearly was. “At best, her comment was an acknowledgment that the police, who were the target of the protest, still cared enough about the safety of the protesters to place a dump truck to block the road,” the draft filing said. “At worst, Ms. Bettinger’s remark constituted political exaggeration protected by the Constitution.”
Following her student-led lawsuit, Bettinger was also the subject of another investigation, this time by UVA’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights (EOCR), which considered allegations by Bryant that Bettinger had harassed Bryant based on her race.
The draft lawsuit alleges that during the EOCR investigation, Bettinger — who is openly pro-police — was the subject of an “extensive investigation into her views and opinions on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement,” raising concerns that investigators were biased against her.
Bettinger’s attorney raised a formal objection to the line of questioning. “Anyone evaluating the allegations against Morgan must not consciously or unconsciously make decisions based on how closely Morgan’s views on BLM (or any related subject) align with their own… Moreover, the BLM movement is one of the most prominent subjects in public discourse. today. People have a wide range of views about it. Asking Morgan her position on it is chilling talk, as it suggests that her guilt or innocence, punishment or lack thereof, on a or otherwise will be conditioned on her expressing a favored political point of view.”
The draft lawsuit also reveals the significant emotional impact of Bryant’s allegations and the subsequent investigations through extended excerpts from one of Bettinger’s EOCR interviews.
“I have sleepless nights and I’ve had to be prescribed medication to sleep more,” Bettinger told investigators. “I had to step up my therapy to talk to my counselor because this just got so much. It finally broke me a little bit ago. It’s just not okay for someone to get away with going on with doing this.”
Despite concerns about bias, the EOCR investigation — which ended in June 2021 — ultimately exonerated Bettinger, not only finding that she did not harass Bryant, but also revealing serious flaws in Bryant’s claims. Contrary to Bryant’s claims that she personally saw Bettinger threaten protesters, the EOCR investigation concluded that it was “more likely than not” that Bryant never heard Bettinger make a “speed bump” at all.
“EOCR addressed each of Bryant’s allegations and concluded that each was either unsupported by the evidence or demonstrably false,” the draft case said. “EOCR reached a conclusion that should have been obvious from Bryant’s allegations at the outset; namely, that her comment to the truck driver about speed bumps was not facially threatening and thus was constitutionally protected speech.”
Bettinger and her legal counsel viewed the results of the EOCR investigation as exoneration and sent a letter to UVA President Jim Ryan—later followed by a letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE)—demanding that Bettinger’s sanctions be lifted . However, the school refused to act, claiming it would be inappropriate to interfere in a student-run investigation.
“Ms. Bettinger received a fair hearing and review,” Ryan wrote in an August 2021 response letter to FIRE, “As president, it would be inappropriate for me to intervene in a case that has been properly adjudicated.”
Last Thursday, Charles Weber, Bettinger’s attorney, released the draft lawsuit against the university, claiming the school violated her First Amendment and due process rights.
The university “sustained retaliation against Ms. Bettinger for her unpopular but constitutionally protected political expression,” the draft lawsuit said. “Although Bryant initiated the retaliation through her social media posts and formal complaints to the EOCR and UJC, the defendant’s active and ongoing actions chilled her speech, adversely affected her personal safety and emotional/mental health, sustained her sentence, and caused long-term damage to her reputation .”
“Defendants imposed limitations on appeal that were unjustified and inconsistent with due process,” the draft case continues, adding that Ryan, “the named defendant with both the power and responsibility to exercise discretion to correct the legal errors in his subordinates and to ensure the discipline of students in accordance with the law, was negligent in the performance of his duties.”
The draft lawsuit comes nearly three years after the original incident. Although it has not yet been filed, Weber says Reason that he intends to file a lawsuit if university officials again refuse to lift Bettinger’s sanctions.
“We pray that University of Virginia officials will do the right thing,” he says.