College Subjected Student to 'Extended Inquisition' Into Her Political Beliefs, Lawyer Claims
Morgan Bettinger might sue the University of Virginia for violating her First Amendment rights.
Morgan Bettinger was a rising senior at the University of Virginia when she was accused by a popular student activist of making violent threats to a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020. Even though an investigation by the university later cleared her of any wrongdoing, Bettinger still received a litany of punishments.
Last week, on the same day that Reason published an investigation into the story, Bettinger's lawyer released a draft lawsuit against the university, arguing that the school violated her First Amendment rights and committed due process violations in sanctioning her. The lawsuit has not yet been filed.
On July 17, 2020, Morgan Bettinger was driving home from work when she found that the road ahead was blocked by a large public works truck, with several dozen protesters gathering on the street behind it. The draft suit states that when she got out of her car to investigate, the truck driver initiated a casual conversation with her, during which Bettinger quipped something to the effect of, "It's a good thing you're here otherwise they could be made speed bumps." The draft suit states that once the conversation was over, Bettinger walked around the truck and took a photograph of the protest.
As Bettinger began walking back to her car, protesters began taking an interest in her, following her to her car and shouting, taunting, and filming her. A few minutes later, another UVA student, prominent activist Zyahna Bryant, sent out several tweets claiming that Bettinger had driven around a series of police barricades and "approached protesters in Charlottesville and told us that we would make 'good speed bumps.'"
However, the draft lawsuit contends 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 stoked student outrage, receiving over 1,000 retweets and leading to a flurry of calls for students to lobby the administration to expel Bettinger.
In the months that followed, Bettinger would be subject to a litany of investigations into her alleged conduct. The first investigation, from the University Judiciary Committee (UJC), UVA's completely student-run dispensary system, found Bettinger guilty of "threatening the health or safety" of UVA students and sanctioned her to do 50 hours of community service, meet three times with a professor meant to teach her about "police community relations," write an apology letter to Bryant, and expulsion in abeyance (meaning that 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's student jury also seemed to agree with Bettinger's version of what she said, writing, "You yourself acknowledged saying 'it's a good thing you are here because, otherwise, these people would have been speed bumps.' Given the tragic events of August 12 and the context in which you uttered these words, you disregarded Charlottesville's violent history."
"UJC credited Ms. Bettinger with her own language…thus acknowledging that her statement was directed to the driver rather than any of the protesters and uttered in the context of a political arena," the draft suit states. "UJC did not find that Ms. Bettinger either actually threatened or intended to threaten physical harm to Bryant or any of the protesters, only that her words posed a risk."
Thus, the student jury had no legal grounds to punish her, as 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 position a dump truck to block the road," the draft suit states. "At worst, Ms. Bettinger's remark constituted political hyperbole protected by the Constitution."
After her student-run trial, Bettinger was also subject to a second investigation, this time from UVA's Office of Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights (EOCR), which considered claims by Bryant that Bettinger had harassed Bryant on the basis of her race.
The draft lawsuit claims that, during the EOCR investigation, Bettinger—who is openly pro-police—was subject to an "extended inquisition into her views and opinions of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement," bringing concerns that investigators were biased against her.
Bettinger's counsel 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 topic) align with their own…. Moreover, the BLM movement is one of the most prominent issues in the public discourse today. People have a wide array of views on it. Questioning Morgan on her views on it chills speech since it suggests that her guilt or innocence, penalty or lack thereof, will be contingent in some way on her expressing a favored political view."
The draft lawsuit also reveals the considerable 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 be able to sleep anymore," Bettinger told investigators. "I had to up my therapy to speak with my counselor because this had just gotten so much. It finally broke me a little bit ago. It's just not okay for someone to get away with to keep doing this."
Despite concerns of bias, the EOCR investigation—which finished in June 2021—ultimately cleared Bettinger, not only finding that she did not harass Bryant, but also uncovering serious flaws in Bryant's allegations. Contrary to Bryant's claims that she personally witnessed Bettinger threaten protesters, the EOCR investigation concluded that it was "more likely than not" that Bryant never heard Bettinger make a "speed bumps" remark at all.
"EOCR addressed each of Bryant's allegations and concluded that each was either unsupported by the evidence or demonstrably false," the draft suit states. "EOCR arrived at a conclusion that should have been obvious from the face of Bryant's allegations in the beginning; namely, that her comment to the truck driver about speed bumps was not threatening on its face and was thus speech protected by the Constitution."
Bettinger and her legal counsel viewed the results of the EOCR investigation as an 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 expunged. However, the school refused to act, claiming that it would be inappropriate to interfere with 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 lawyer, released the draft lawsuit against the university claiming that the school violated her First Amendment and due process rights.
The university "upheld the retaliation against Ms. Bettinger for her unpopular but constitutionally protected political expression," the draft lawsuit states. "Although Bryant initiated the process of retaliation through her social media postings and formal complaints with EOCR and UJC, the active and ongoing actions of the Defendants chilled her speech, adversely impacted her personal safety and emotional/mental health, upheld her punishment and caused the long-term harm to her reputation."
"The Defendants imposed limitations on appeal that were unwarranted and inconsistent with due process of law," the draft suit continues, adding that Ryan, "the one named Defendant with both the power and responsibility to exercise discretionary judgment to correct the legal errors of his subordinates and to ensure discipline of students in compliance with the law, was negligent in the performance of his duties."
The draft lawsuit comes almost three years after the original incident. While it has not yet been filed, Weber tells Reason that he intends to file the suit if university officials again refuse to expunge Bettinger's sanctions.
"We pray that the officials of the University of Virginia will do the right thing," he says.