Compelled Speech at UVa: The Morgan Bettinger Case

Morgan Bettinger

by James A. Bacon

On July 17, 2020, Morgan Bettinger was driving home from her job along a street in Charlottesville that flanked the downtown pedestrian mall where an unlicensed protest was occurring. Demonstrators roamed the street, so Bettinger, a University of Virginia 4th-year student, got out and chatted with the driver of a city garbage truck, which was blocking the road. In a throwaway remark she said, “It’s a good thing you are here because, otherwise, these people would have been speed bumps.”

The quip evoked the death of Heather Heyer a few years previously during the Unite the Right rally when a White supremacist ran his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators very nearby. Overhearing the comment, two bystanders interpreted her to be saying that protesters would make good speed bumps. Word quickly spread. Demonstrators aggressively followed her in her car as she slowly backed, asking, “Was that a threat?”

One thing led to another and Bettinger wound up in front of the student-run University Judicial Committee (UJC). In what she and her attorney Charles “Buddy” Weber view as a kangaroo court proceeding, she was found guilty of violating the University’s Standards of Conduct. The UJC expelled Bettinger from UVa but held the sanction in abeyance on the condition that she not violate the standards of conduct again. Her actions, wrote the UJC panel, were “shameful” and put members of the community at risk.

Given the tragic events of August 12 and the context in which you uttered these words, you disregarded Charlottesville’s violent history. A history you should have been cognizant of as a UVA student and resident of Charlottesville. During these proceedings you have shown no understanding of the risk this statement imposed. 

Let us set aside the absurdity that a young woman returning from her babysitting job, accidentally encountering an unsanctioned protest and making a casual remark to a garbage truck driver, posed a risk to anyone. And let us not tarry upon the details of her travails: being lied about, labeled a racist, and punished for making a statement that some found offensive. (For details, see the letter, published last July in Bacon’s Rebellion, that her attorney wrote to UVa President Jim Ryan.)

In this column, I focus on how the student judiciary subjected her to compelled speech and political indoctrination as a form of penance. President Ryan has been outspoken for his support of “free speech,” welcoming former Vice President Mike Pence to the university and speaking out against cancel culture. Yet UVa is a place where someone whose speech offends the student judiciary can be coerced into making confessions of guilt and submitting to social-justice indoctrination.

To avoid expulsion, Bettinger had to fulfill the following orders.

  • Write a letter of apology to Zyhana Bryant, the UVa student who organized the demonstration and leveled the accusations against her, “acknowledging the harm your actions posed to both her and to the UVA community.”
  • Engage in 50 hours of community service with organizations that will “help you better understand the context of Social Justice in America.”
  • Conduct three meetings with Brian Williams, an African-American professor in the Batten School of Leadership who has written about “racism in the administrative state.” The UJC order: “You will discuss the history of police community relations to broaden your understanding.”

Bettinger was working a full-time job as a nanny to pay the bills. By the time the UJC proceedings concluded, it was May 1, the academic year was nearly over, and she was eager to graduate. Although she objected to the conditions imposed upon her, she believed she had no choice. If she stood firm on her principles, she would not graduate.

The letter to Bryant was especially hard to stomach because the militant student leader had called her a racist, created a false narrative about her intentionally driving around police barricades and threatening the protesters, instigated her ordeal with the UJC, and called for her expulsion. Bettinger thought long and hard how to balance her version of the truth with something that would pass muster with the UJC. In the end, she threaded the needle this way:

I meant no disrespect to anyone. That being said, I understand that my association of the word speedbumps with the protesters may have offended some or triggered uncomfortable emotions in those who may have personally witnessed the tragic events of August 2017 in Charlottesville. For that I’m sorry.

She forwarded the letter to the UJC and that was the last she heard about it.

The terms of the order also required Bettinger to perform community service. But not just any kind. She had to serve organizations that did social-justice work.

Because she had to cram in so much work with classes and exams within a very short time, she couldn’t work with a single group. She had to spread her hours over several organizations whose schedules dovetailed with hers. Initially she proposed seven organizations in Charlottesville, including food banks, homeless shelters, and churches that served the poor. “The Bible makes social justice a mandate of faith and a fundamental expression of Christian discipleship,” she explained in an email to Nabeel Raza, the UJC student who oversaw her case.

Raza nixed the two churches. He accepted only secular organizations. She was in no position to object, so she complied.

In the third requirement, she met with Williams. The professor was cordial, and they worked out how she would “broaden her understanding” of police-community relations: by watching a series of events co-hosted by UVa’s Batten School and Law School relating to the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck. The series included:

“Navigating the Derek Chauvin Trial for the Murder of George Floyd: At an Inflection Point — The Law & Policing.”

“Navigating the Derek Chauvin Trial for the Murder of George Floyd: Opportunities for Advocacy and Healing.”

“Navigating the Derek Chauvin Trial for the Murder of George Floyd: Reflecting on the Verdict.”

As the daughter of a Charlottesville police officer who was, by her recollection, widely loved for his service, Bettinger already had firm views about interactions between police and communities. As with the letter to Bryant, though, she tried to tell Williams what she thought he wanted to hear without repudiating her own beliefs and principles. At the end, he deemed her participation in the exercise adequate, the UJC certified her compliance, and she graduated on time.

As a postscript to the story, Bettinger sought to have the UJC conviction and sanction expunged from her record. Her attorney Buddy Weber and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) appealed to UVa President Jim Ryan to override the UJC conviction. An independent investigation by the office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights (EOCR) had found that “no reasonable person” would have taken her words as a threat.

In a letter to Ryan, FIRE attorneys demolished the argument that Bettinger’s statement amounted to an incitement to violence.

The remark was not a statement of intent to commit future violence, as evident from its use of the past tense (“would have been speed bumps”) and conditional nature (“it’s a good thing that you are here because, otherwise…”). As the United States Supreme Court explained in the seminal Watts v. United States, the “conditional nature” of a remark, where it is a “kind of very crude offensive method of stating a political” viewpoint, renders it “political hyperbole,” not a “true threat.”

On August 10, 2021, Ryan wrote a letter rejecting the appeal. Under UVa’s system of governance, he said, the student-run UJC is entrusted with the administration and enforcement of the Standards of Conduct. “The President of the University does not have the authority to reverse the final outcome of the disciplinary process, and there is no precedent for the President claiming this authority.”

“I was not a fact finder or adjudicator in this matter, so I am not in a position to opine on the merits of the case,” Ryan wrote. “I do not believe it would be appropriate for me as President to intervene at this point.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated incorrectly that the Dean of Students found that Bettinger’s speed-bump comment could not be construed as a threat. To the contrary, he referred the incident to the Student Judiciary Committee.

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38 responses to “Compelled Speech at UVa: The Morgan Bettinger Case”

  1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    So you disagree with the decision of a student-run judicial system… hmmmmm….🤔

    1. walter smith Avatar
      walter smith

      Yes Troll. A social justice kangaroo court. Do you believe in fair trials or not?
      You know I take your comment as a threat. Let me take you to the BR Star Chamber…oh, that’s right, us evil types actually believe in dangerous things like free speech and due process…
      Why didn’t UJC try Zyahna Bryant for the illegal assembly? Wasn’t blocking a street without a permit actually dangerous?
      Asking for a friend…
      Oh, and Jim Ryan is a weasel…
      I’ll explain why later…

      1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
        Eric the half a troll

        Walt, if you were following along (instead of just ranting) you would know that I consider student run judicial systems in college to be… well.. stupid. This may finally get the likes of JAB to understand why…. although I doubt it.

        1. Donald Smith Avatar
          Donald Smith

          Eric, if you’re going to be a troll, expect to be treated like one. You’re not even a full troll.

          “the likes of JAB.” Oh, you mean the fellow who created and runs this blog, and allows you to stick around in its shadows? That JAB?

          1. VaNavVet Avatar

            I think that the comment referred to those who have championed honor codes in general.

          2. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            And other quaint notions… like slavery.

          3. killerhertz Avatar

            Hey they built the pyramids.

          4. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Glory be!

        2. walter smith Avatar
          walter smith

          Then we agree about this particular matter. Scary

          1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
            Eric the half a troll

            I will try to not let it happen again…

    2. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      Had the same thought. A comparison of this process with the UVA or VMI Honor Courts might be illuminating. The problem here is, this is not a matter of telling a lie, cheating or stealing. It is totally subjective. On its face her comment was not a threat and perhaps a simple statement of fact that the protesters were at risk of being hit by cars. As is usual with these things, I’m wondering what else might have happened or been said.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        yep. i suspect there is more to the story. If not, then something has gone wacko up that way.

      2. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Comedy is hard. It should only be practiced by professionals… like Michael Richards.

      3. VaNavVet Avatar

        It was a strange statement and difficult to interpret. It was not framed as a simple statement that the protesters were at risk. Was Ms. Bettinger suggesting that the good people of Charlottesville might run down the protesters? Perhaps she was speaking about herself running them down had the garbage truck not been blocking her path. If so then it would not have been taken seriously but rather as a sick joke. Lesson to be learned about keeping such jokes to oneself.

        1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
          James Wyatt Whitehead

          Indeed. Another lesson about Cville. Drive around it. You will never have to face the thought and speech police.

    3. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      It’s not VMI. Consistency is the hobgoblin of a small mind. Can’t have a good cancel culture without it.

  2. James McCarthy Avatar
    James McCarthy

    Surely, TJ would be aghast at this tale, if all as reported is factual. Even for me the UJC is too woke.

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      Ah, those who forget and get to repeat history. In TJ’s time the big battle was over the Alien and Sedition Act, surely a version of today’s cancel culture. (He did oppose it, but the attitudes and suppression were widespread.) Nothing new under the sun. This young lady has her degree and would be wise to kick the dust of the place off her shoes and never look back.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      IF? I’ve got a bridge in NYC for sale.

  3. vicnicholls Avatar


  4. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Poor college kid. Wrong place at the wrong time. Ms. Zyhana Bryant is a social justice warrior, served on Northam’s advisory board, and Ryan’s council. She can be booked to speak at an event.

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Some things you just don’t joke about. Maybe she could have been more Pence-ive.

    I will remind you that a man spent 3 years in prison for making a joke about a “burning bush” in 2002.

    “It took a federal jury in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, little more than an hour to find Richard Humphreys guilty of threatening to kill or harm the president. What did he do to face five years of federal time and a hefty fine?

    Humphreys, who calls himself Israel, views himself as a latter-day prophet cut from an Old Testament mold. It seems Israel was spreading the word one March day in Sioux Falls. “Don’t be surprised if you see George Bush on TV and someone runs by and throws something on him and lights a match,” Israel sneered. God had once before spoken through a burning bush, he noted. It turns out that quasi-President George W. Bush was scheduled to be in Sioux Falls the very next day. After stewing about Israel’s comments for the better part of a day, a bartender called federal authorities. Call it a time-delayed hue and cry.”

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    You conservatives are a hoot. You want an honor code until you don’t.

    1. beachguy Avatar

      I believe the “UJC Panel” is different from the Honor Committee. The “JC” refers to the Judiciary Committee which addresses misbehavior versus honor code violations. Expulsion can be meted out by both c.ommittees.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        how about laying out the differences? Which one has jurisdiction in this kind of thing and why?

        1. beachguy Avatar

          Basically, lying, cheating, and stealing are honor code violations. Fighting, vandalism, and threatening people would be reviewed by judicial committee. Honor Committee, until recently, only had expulsion as a Sanction. JC can expell but has other less severe sanctions. At least that’s how it was in the 70’s.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar


    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      well yeah, but the punishment should fit the crime and referring to people as potential speed bumps is just not a real ‘crime”.

      My bet, it won’t be long before the new AG starts to ‘investigate” things like this…. you know “trump” these liberal boards…

  7. disqus_VYLI8FviCA Avatar

    UVa continues to validate my decision to reduce my donations to the University to zero. So happy to not support Jim Ryan and the farcical SJW antics of the coddled UVa undergrads who feel unsafe hearing things they don’t like.

  8. beachguy Avatar

    TJ had his hands full with reckless students, often combined with alcohol. One such student shot the Rotunda clock. Another, John Mosbey ( Civil War’s Grey Ghost) killed a student in a duel.

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      Mosby. Well he did not kill George Turpin. Mosby shot him with a pepper pistol in self defense. Turpin was shot in the mouth, the ball ricocheted off of the jaw, and lodged in the back of the neck. Turned out to be a minor wounding. As for Mosby, he was expelled from UVA, cleared of malicious wounding, but did serve one year for a misdemeanor unlawful shooting. While in jail the man who prosecuted Mosby took him under wing and allowed the future Ranger access to his law library. Mosby was admitted to the bar at the end of his incarceration. The governor pardoned Mosby and the General Assembly waived the 500 dollar fine. That is how the diminutive yet combative Mosby dealt with the town bully named Turpin.

      1. beachguy Avatar

        Thank you for that correction. I read that (Mosbey’s) biography many years ago. I remember the jail time and his mentor. My mistake regarding a duel.

        1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
          James Wyatt Whitehead

          Mosby is buried right up the street from my house. The stories about this man are marvelous.

          1. beachguy Avatar

            Yes indeed, an incredibly colorful life.

  9. Rafaelo Avatar

    A jury just awarded $33 million against Oberlin College for similar participation in Woke mob “justice.” Let’s hope Ms. Bettinger sues U. Va. — and that I am on that jury. U. Va. has a $14.5 billon endowment. I figure three billion is about right. Maybe five. Whatever. Enough to get their attention.

  10. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    So I promised to explain why I called Jim Ryan a weasel on this case.
    He is an Obama-ist fundamental transformation type and hides behind all the money and seems so vanilla – but he will not, under any circumstances, cross the Leftist woke orthodoxy.
    The Lia Thomas/Emma Weyant situation is one example. He will not defend his athlete. Nor will anyone in his administration, including the coaches of all the women’s teams. Add in all the UVA Today propaganda…nothing. Meanwhile, he didn’t hesitate to do a podcast with the transgender student council president and gush over all the transgender progress this person represented. So we know where he stands, but he’ll pretend with alumni that it is a difficult decision and he is bound by NCAA rules.
    Which belies his “unequivocal” support for free speech. Just words. He claims credit for the Mike Pence event, but did nothing to make it happen. And I am sure he and his cabal made sure the rent a mob rioters were told to keep it down and not create a scene. But how about the compelled speech of the DEI in peer review? Or the Covid response? No dissent on lockdowns, mandates, the “vaccine” in a university with 40,000 students and employees? How is that even possible if there truly was free speech?
    But let’s now turn to this case. The woman who falsely claimed that she was threatened was Zyahna Bryant, who has been groomed as an organizer and activist since high school, primarily through the Jefferson School for African American Culture. The woman in charge of that “school” is also a director in one of the many “Democracy Initiative” boards, and was part of approving a grant with UVA money to her school to melt the Lee statue as part of the “Swords into Plowshares” proposal to the City of Charlottesville. So Jim would not dare cross one of his pet activists, even at the expense of injustice to a student he supposedly is to care for.
    Anyway, Ryan says he cannot overturn the student run system. This is a lie.
    Here is the applicable language from the Board Manual where his powers are enumerated –
    9 The President shall be responsible for the discipline of students with the power to impose
    appropriate penalties including expulsion;

    He has the power. He is scared to cross the Woke line and let injustice reign.
    I call that a weasel.

  11. StarboardLift Avatar

    Why wasn’t Zyhana Bryant also hauled before the Judiciary Committee for calling Bettinger a racist? These days that’s the most damaging label one can use.

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