In the age of instant cancellation — just add Twitter — sometimes all it takes is one offhand remark to be overheard or misheard, and a nonentity can become an overnight pariah.
That is what happened to a University of Virginia student last summer whose senior year became the “year from hell” after she raised the hackles of local racial justice activists.
Morgan Bettinger was driving home on Friday, July 17 last year when she found her way blocked by protesters participating in the Black Women Matter Noise Demo on E High Street in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia.
The demonstrators were illegally blocking the road, her lawyer claims, and Bettinger was unable to drive past them, so the college senior parked her car and spoke briefly to a city dump truck driver who was blocking the road. According to Bettinger, she remarked to him that “it’s good that you are here or they could become speed bumps,” referring to the protesters.
Two protesters overheard pieces of that conversation and immediately spread the word that Bettinger had said that “the protesters would make good speed bumps.”
One of the organizers of the demonstration, Zyahna Bryant, a rising sophomore at UVA, posted Bettinger’s name on social media, calling her a racist and urging her fellow students to demand her expulsion. There is no known video of Bettinger making the remark, although Bryant claimed that at least 30 people witnessed it.
Bryant also posted video of the aftermath of the incident, which showed protesters surrounding Bettinger’s car and shouting at her, calling her a “Karen” and mocking her for “crying.” The protesters follow her car as she backs away from them. Her windows are rolled up and she appears to be on her cell phone.
Other Twitter users attempted to dox Bettinger, posting more of her personal information including her license plate number, email address, and Facebook profile, as well as the fact that her father was a police officer.
By Sunday, the school had gotten involved. The Dean of Students’ office had been flooded with angry demands for action against Bettinger. UVA issued a statement saying it “strongly condemns any threat directed at other members of our community” and said it was aware of the allegations against Bettinger and was “actively investigating” them.
Bryant filed complaints with both the student-run University Judiciary Committee (UJC) and the university’s independent investigatory arm, the Office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights (EOCR), alleging Bettinger had harassed the protesters on the basis of race. In September, the UJC held a trial and found Bettinger guilty of violating the UVA standards of conduct. The university ordered her to perform 50 hours of community service at an approved social justice organization as well as complete three hours of remedial education. She also had to draft a letter of apology to Bryant and submit it to the UJC for approval. Bettinger was also slapped with a suspension, meaning that if she violated the standards of conduct again she could be expelled.
Bettinger appealed the UJC conviction, but her appeal was denied, at which point she was only about a month away from graduation. The university was requiring her to complete all the sanctions before it would grant her degree, so she complied.
After graduation, the EOCR’s investigation concluded in favor of Bettinger, finding that her comment was “not clearly threatening.” The EOCR is not run by students.
Bettinger filed her own complaints with both the UJC and EOCR, saying Bryant had fabricated her version of the “speed bumps” remark and spread the rumor online. Both complaints were dismissed.
Bettinger described the past year as “a year from hell,” saying she received death threats and feared for her and her mother’s safety. She also lost her job.
“Not only is your final year of college supposed to be the most memorable, ending on a high note, and instead I was harassed constantly, receiving death threats online, having to worry about how this is affecting my family, having extra protection at the house, knowing of the threats that were posed to my mom and I,” she told The Daily Wire.
“It’s been such an incredibly challenging year just trying to make it through, getting through classes, making sure I could keep my grades up, trying to write my thesis, and trying to work full-time because I put myself through school,” she said, adding that the ordeal also had a “huge impact” on her mental health.
“I do not wish this on anyone,” she said.
In recent years, Bryant has attracted national media attention for spearheading a 2016 petition to remove the Robert E. Lee statue from Charlottesville.
The Washington Post, Vice, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s social justice education project have all published favorable profiles of Bryant, and Teen Vogue published an op-ed by the young racial justice activist when the Lee statue was eventually dismantled. Her activism has been featured prominently in many other publications including The New York Times, CNN, The New Yorker, and Buzzfeed.
“When we keep erecting these statues, when we keep putting up new Confederate flags, when we continue to put out these narratives into history books and into course materials, we are sending the message that we wish the South had won and thus that we wish that slavery was still maintained,” Bryant said last year on an NBC News panel.
Opposition to the statue’s proposed removal was the ostensible motivation behind the 2017 Unite the Right rally, the white supremacist protest that turned deadly when a protester rammed his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one woman, Heather Heyer. The driver, who held white supremacist views, was convicted of murder and dozens of hate crime charges and was given multiple life sentences. The confrontation between Bettinger and the protesters occurred just blocks away from where Heyer was killed.
Bryant was also a member of the UVA student council last year. In November, she was criticized for remarks she made during a legislative session when the council was debating what to do about a professor who made a joke that some students found racist.
“Free speech, since we want to be Constitution buffs or whatever, guess what’s not protected? Hate speech,” Bryant told a student council member who disagreed with her. Video of the meeting was flagged at the time by Young America’s Foundation.
Later in the meeting, Bryant warned the student council that she hopes “we don’t have to revisit this conversation in the same way again because next time it’s not going to be as cute and classy.”
UVA did not respond to a request for comment.
The school has also not responded to Bettinger’s lawyer, Charles Weber, who sent a letter to UVA President James Ryan requesting that Bettinger’s UJC conviction and sanctions be expunged from her senior year record.
UVA has not responded to a similar letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which demanded that the university clear Bettinger’s record as well as implement a policy to prevent students from being punished by the school for their “constitutionally-protected expression.” FIRE requested a response by August 10.
“FIRE is disappointed that UVA has not responded to our letter raising concerns about this speech,” the group said in a statement to The Daily Wire.
“If it cannot defend its punishment of Morgan Bettinger for protected expression, UVA must immediately rescind it and commit to refraining from punishing protected expression in the future. Although the chilling effect on student speech has already been felt, UVA must remedy the situation by expunging its punishment from Bettinger’s record,” FIRE said.
Weber warned that UVA has committed a “pretty severe constitutional violation” against Bettinger and that she has a right to have her record expunged.
“I think we would have a case in court to do that,” Weber told The Daily Wire. “We’re not threatening anything,” he said, but UVA’s president is “certainly on notice that that’s where this case could go.”