How an Ill-Informed Internet Mob Ruined a UVA Student’s Life
April 24, 2023 | Tags: Internet, REASON
The story went something like this: A white woman pulled up to a Black Women Matter protest in Charlottesville and told attendees they would make "good fucking speed bumps." When protesters confronted her, the driver cried and called the police.
If you were a student at the University of Virginia (UVA) during summer 2020—as I was—you almost certainly heard this tale. It was repeated hundreds of times, over group chats and Instagram posts and viral tweets. The rumors were given a sheen of legitimacy by local news reporting and were acknowledged by the university administration.
The allegations first attracted attention after Zyahna Bryant, a 19-year-old UVA student and social justice activist, made them on Twitter during the demonstration. Her account would be retweeted more than 1,000 times. "The woman in this truck approached protesters in #Charlottesville, and told us that we would make 'good speedbumps,'" Bryant wrote. "She then called the police and started crying saying we were attacking her."
Bryant also posted a series of videos—not of the alleged "speed bump" comment itself, but of its aftermath. In the videos, an SUV reverses down a street while Bryant and several other protesters follow. "It's a Karen, it's a Karen," Bryant taunts.
Charlottesville Beyond Policing, the group that organized the protest, gave more details in a Medium post shortly afterward. The woman "drove around the public works truck blocking the street that demonstrators were convened on, and felt compelled to say, not just once, but twice, that protesters would 'make good speed bumps,'" the post reported. "The second time she repeated it loudly to a Black protester and added 'good fucking speed bumps.'"
Soon after Bryant's tweets, the allegation was picked up by local journalists.
"While the group gathered on East High Street, a white woman drove around the public works truck blocking the road, and twice told the protesters they would 'make good speed bumps,'" C-VILLE Weekly reported. "The threat is especially chilling and violent given that Heather Heyer was murdered by a driver just a few blocks from where the protest took place." Heather Heyer was a 32-year-old woman who was killed during the 2017 Unite the Right rally when a white supremacist deliberately drove his car into a throng of protesters.
Videos captured by protest attendees show that a small crowd, including Bryant, soon gathered to confront the woman, who had since retreated to her car and appeared to call the police.
"Fuck you, I almost died in a fucking car accident…fucking cry bitch," one protester shouts in footage of the incident.
"No one captured [the woman's] words on camera. However, WUVA can confirm she refused to leave the scene even though protesters were asking her to, and at no point were protesters blocking her car," the student-run website WUVA reported. It added that she "refused to leave until Charlottesville Police officers arrived at the scene in an unmarked minivan."
Bryant sent her first battery of tweets within minutes of the incident, and outraged comments quickly began flowing in.
"*She* called the police?? To do what? Report herself for making a threat??" UVA professor Jalane Schmidt replied.
"if you know this karen, please take her keys. if she feels the overwhelming need to run people over, she shouldn't be driving," local journalist Molly Conger tweeted.
Almost immediately, a search was launched to identify the young woman at the protest. It didn't take long: Her license plate appeared prominently in Bryant's videos. By the next morning, she had been identified as Morgan Bettinger, a rising senior at UVA.
"Good morning everyone but Albemarle High grad, UVA student and daughter of a cop, Morgan Alyse Bettinger, who threatened protestors in Charlottesville last night by saying from her blue Subaru that we'd 'make good speed bumps,'" wrote one anonymous Twitter user, who may have been the first to identify Bettinger as the woman in the car. The post contained a screenshot of Bettinger's Facebook profile, which had a "Blue Lives Matter" profile frame; it eventually gained over 750 retweets.
Once Bettinger's identity was established, UVA students seemed particularly inflamed. The alleged perpetrator was one of their own. One student tweeted that Bettinger was a "f*cking Nazi." Another wrote: "All I know is that I'm not comfortable being classmates with someone who promotes domestic terrorism."
Student Council President Ellen Yates declared on Twitter: "Absolutely disgusting. She knew the history, and she knew what she was doing. A person who makes this kind of threat should not be a student at UVA. There can be no community of trust with people like her in it."
Carolyn Lane was a junior at the university at the time. "Suddenly everyone knew about it," she says. "I had some friends who were back home who were messaging me about it because they knew I was in town…it was everywhere."
The next day, Bryant began a campaign to send mass complaints to school administrators demanding Bettinger's expulsion."EMAIL these UVA deans now to demand that Morgan face consequences for her actions and that UVA stop graduating racists," she tweeted. Bryant herself filed a complaint with the University Judiciary Committee (UJC), a student-run disciplinary system, alleging that Bettinger had threatened students' health and safety.
The university eventually issued a statement, which said it "strongly condemns any threat directed at other members of our community. We are aware of the allegations on social media about a student's conduct with respect to a protest in the city and are actively investigating the matter."
Rather than quell the growing outrage, that response seemed to inflame it.
"okay this, but with actual consequences," wrote one student. "because we know how much y'all love to coddle little white girls"
"nothing more to investigate. just act," added another.
In the year that followed, Bettinger was the subject of multiple investigations. One of them, from the UJC, would find her guilty of "threatening the health or safety" of students. As punishment, she would be expelled in abeyance—meaning that she was allowed to continue her schooling, but that a second violation of the same standard of conduct would likely result in actual expulsion. She also faced a litany of other sanctions.
While Bettinger eventually graduated from the university, she did so with a permanent mark on her record and a destroyed reputation.
But despite two separate investigations, there's no evidence beyond Bryant's allegations that Bettinger said protestors would make "good fucking speed bumps" or that she threatened the protesters at all.
Bettinger denied she made the threat. A student-run investigation agreed with Bettinger's, not Bryant's, version of what transpired. A separate investigation by the school's civil rights office concluded that none of Bryant's allegations had sufficient evidence to support them. Bryant's most damning claim—that Bettinger had told protesters they would make "good fucking speed bumps"—had no corroborating witnesses, even though it allegedly occurred in front of a crowd of more than 30 people. Reason reviewed additional documents previously not made public, all of which back up the findings of the investigation.
But none of this would come out until nearly a year later, in June 2021—with the results of the investigation kept largely under wraps. The only story that most UVA students heard, the one repeated over group chats, Twitter threads, and Zoom meetings with almost manic fervor, was Bryant's.
This is the story of a rumor mill that rushed to collective judgment, a pervasive climate of anger and outrage, a weak campus administration, and a unique higher-ed justice system that faltered just when it was most needed. It's the story of a woman who was informally ostracized and formally sanctioned for a story that seemingly everyone on campus had heard and believed, but which was never proven.
'It's a Karen'
The story Bettinger tells about what happened that day is markedly different from the story that dominated the narrative on campus.
According to Bettinger, on the evening of July 17, 2020, she was driving home from work on East High Street, near downtown Charlottesville, when she saw a dump truck blocking the road ahead. Bettinger says the truck didn't appear to be completely blocking the intersection of East High and 4th Street, so she kept driving.
By the time she realized the road actually was completely blocked, Bettinger says, she had no room to turn around. Confused, she parked her car and went out to see what was going on.
As Bettinger got out of her car, she claims that the driver of the dump truck initiated a conversation with her. "I had no interest in walking over to him to speak to him," she says, "but out of being polite, when he spoke to me I answered." According to Bettinger, the pair had a brief, casual conversation—a claim the driver later supported in a statement to Charlottesville police.
At some point during this conversation, Bettinger says, she told the driver something like "It's a good thing that you are here, because otherwise these people would have been speed bumps." While she says she doesn't remember her exact words, she maintains that her comment was intended to thank the driver for protecting the protesters, many of whom were sitting in the middle of often-busy East High Street.
"Not once did anything from the past, of even the rally, Unite the Right rally, cross my mind," Bettinger says. "It was simply a comment made to a [dump] truck driver who was sitting and blocking the road, and just saying, like, 'It's good you're here.'"
While the truck driver told police he had initiated a brief conversation with Bettinger, he said that, at this moment, he was unable to hear her precise words over the sound of his engine.
After finishing her conversation with the truck driver, Bettinger says that she walked around the front of the truck, and toward the back of the crowd, to get a better look at the protest. She took a photo and began walking back to her car.
At that point, Bettinger says that a few in the crowd had begun to take an interest in her—someone seemed to be recording her, and others were following her. Unnerved, Bettinger immediately called her mother and got in her car. The crowd grew increasingly aggressive, and many began shouting at her. According to Bettinger, one protester started pounding on the car's windows. "With the one woman hitting on my car and other people shouting and starting to threaten me, I didn't know what was going to happen," Bettinger says. Frightened, she called 911.
Eventually, Bettinger says that the protesters gave her enough space to back up one block, pulling her car onto 3rd Street. Videos taken by protest attendees show that a small group of protesters followed Bettinger. One of the protesters was Bryant.
"It's a Karen, it's a Karen," Bryant shouted as she filmed Bettinger. Faintly, one voice can be heard asking, "What did she say?" Another person replied, "She said we'll make good speed bumps."
"Oh! We'll make good speed bumps?" Bryant exclaimed in the video, "We'll make good speed bumps?"
When police arrived a few minutes later, Bettinger says they waved her back onto East High Street, and she eventually drove home after speaking to the police. "We had gone down a couple of blocks and they wanted to see how I was doing because I was quite shaken up," Bettinger says. "I was physically shaking and very taken aback by the whole experience."
Bettinger was unaware of the social media fervor that was building until hours later. "I was laying in bed, and one of my friends from high school…reached out and said, 'Are you OK?' And I didn't know what that meant," Bettinger says.
Then he sent her a link to Bryant's Twitter thread.
'I Was Completely Consumed'
Bryant organized her first social justice demonstration at age 12. She gained national recognition after she wrote a 2016 petition demanding that Charlottesville take down its statue of Robert E. Lee. By summer 2020, she had been named to Teen Vogue's "21 under 21" list, had spoken alongside Bernie Sanders, and had been profiled in such outlets as The New Yorker and The New York Times. She was easily one of the most visible students at UVA—in part because her face was pictured on the side of a university bus.
Social justice protests swept the nation during summer 2020. Americans were outraged by seemingly countless unjustified police killings, and raucous protests over the death of George Floyd dominated major cities. With COVID-19 sweeping the nation, Americans were cooped up, glued to screens, and furious.
I was a junior at UVA at the time, though I didn't know Bryant or Bettinger personally. Quarantined at home, students took to calling each other out on social media and circulating increasing numbers of demand letters and statements. Students were mad that summer: about policing, about racism, about COVID, about inequality. At times, it felt that everyone was just angry—and looking for someone, anyone, to blame.
Morgan Bettinger was the perfect villain. She was a white girl from Charlottesville, the daughter of a cop, and by her own account pro-police.
The summer had already been dominated by viral videos of white women behaving badly, with Amy Cooper, the so-called Central Park Karen, chief among them. It wasn't hard to believe that Charlottesville could have a Karen of its own.
As the story spread online, comments kept rolling in, mostly on Twitter.
"Absolutely insane. We need to see action from @UVA against hate speech," wrote one student.
"@UVA needs to expel Morgan Bettinger IMMEDIATELY. You all want an open racist attending your school???" one anonymous account tweeted.
Making matters worse, few people seemed to have even watched Bryant's video. Comment after comment insisted that there was video proof that Bettinger had made the threats.
"what 'allegation?!' there is clear video photage [sic] of this girls [sic] racist and borderline violent behavior," wrote one student.
A few comments seemed like veiled threats. One anonymous person tweeted a photo of a canister of foam sealant with the caption "apply liberally to tailpipe."
"I was completely consumed. My phone did not stop blowing up," Bettinger recalls. "I didn't sleep for nights."
Bettinger felt the ramifications offline too. "Somebody had identified me after this and started following me in a grocery store. So I had to leave," Bettinger told me. "I was trying to get another car at that point because…people were looking for my license plates and my bumper sticker. So I had a wonderful family friend let me use their car for a week."
Bettinger was majoring in the university's political philosophy, policy, and law program. The director eventually sent a series of mass emails to her cohort, writing that "regardless of whether your classmate made the remark, and whatever one's views on the legal limits of free speech, its substance and import must be unconditionally condemned….No academic institution or program dedicated to free and open reflection on our deepest public disagreements can condone such an attitude."
In the litany of Zoom meetings and phone calls that followed, it became increasingly clear that Bettinger's cohort would refuse to be in the same virtual classroom as her. The class was officially changed to an asynchronous course.
"They tried to kick me out of my own major," Bettinger told me. "One individual of my cohort even compared me to a rapist."
Confirming Bettinger's fears, the dean of students, Allen Groves, referred charges* to the UJC for "threatening the protesters," and Bryant also filed a complaint with the UJC. Bettinger would face disciplinary charges alleging that she had threatened students' "health or safety."
'If They Violate Your Constitutional Rights…the Entire State Has'
The UJC is a student-run organization that functions as the school's disciplinary system, handling almost all cases of student misconduct not falling under the honor code or allegations of sexual assault. The committee, which functions like a college-based civil court, is one of UVA's most elite clubs—and in contrast to many other student justice systems, which can be loose and often shoddy, the UJC is a well-oiled machine.
The organization has a bureaucracy that handles the investigation, defense, judgment, and punishment of accused students. For trials, a five-member jury—the UJC bylaws call it a "trial panel" made up of individual "judges"—is selected from a pool of around 30 elected representatives.
Judging from my interviews with former UJC representatives, these juries are keenly aware they act on behalf of a public university and their actions are therefore constrained by federal law. "If they violate your constitutional rights, the entire university and by extension the entire state has," one former representative says. "So the appeal for that would go directly to federal court."
To prevent such an outcome, the UJC employs a staggering number of practices specifically enacted to protect accused students' legal rights. Before they even hear a case, one former representative told me that new jury members are given a training on their "constitutional responsibilities" which contains not just an overview of the First Amendment, but also—relevant for Bettinger's case—the legal definition of a true threat.
According to this former representative, the university administration frequently reviews the jury's findings before they are formally announced. While they cannot unilaterally reverse a decision, administrators can "send [a case] back either for entire retrial or with specific notes about a paragraph or a sentence or a decision that is likely to cause issues," he told me.
The juries are sometimes provided with "panel instructions," a document reviewing the relevant laws. These instructions are written in consultation with university counsel, and they are drafted with the explicit intent that they guide jury deliberations. While panel instructions aren't given in every case, they were given in Bettinger's—suggesting that the UJC and the administration believed her case raised legal issues.
Ideally, the panel instructions in Bettinger's case "should have included basically an explanation of what the First Amendment requires of a university," says Sabrina Conza, a program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a First Amendment nonprofit which was briefly involved in Bettinger's case. "So, an explanation that the university cannot punish speech that is protected, and then an explanation of specific kinds of speech that maybe they're investigating."
Further, because Bettinger was on trial for 'threatening' UVA students, the panel instructions should have included the legal definition of a true threat—the very high bar Bettinger's speech would have to cross for the university to legally punish her.
"A true threat is a statement in which the speaker means to convey a serious intent to engage in violence against another person," says Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney at FIRE.
According to Steinbaugh, Bettinger's account of her comment—that she had said something like "It's a good thing that you are here because, otherwise, these people would have been speed bumps"—falls short of a true threat for two reasons. "One, it's not seriously conveying an intent to do something in the future." And second, "it would fall short of a true threat because it's rhetorical hyperbole," meaning that it's an "exaggerated, not sincere" statement.
If the UJC jury believed Bettinger, this means they wouldn't, or at least shouldn't, be able to punish her, as her comment was simply not a true threat. It wasn't an expression of an intent to commit future violence, and it was clearly rhetorical hyperbole.
The UJC, then, seemed well-equipped to adjudicate the complaints against Bettinger—and to understand the First Amendment issues at play when possibly punishing a student for her speech.
'I Think I Was Numb'
As Bettinger's trial began on September 25, 2020, she was nervous.
"I knew I had a solid case," she says. "I had prepared everything I possibly could to be as transparent as possible, to show all the facts. But at the same time, I knew I was facing UVA students that—I did not have much hope in them being neutral."
Adding an extra twist to the proceedings, UJC trials function like civil court, meaning that Bryant acted as a plaintiff, constructing the case against Bettinger. Quite literally, Bettinger's UJC trial was her versus Bryant. The two would be in the same place for the first time since the day of the incident.
According to Bettinger, her trial was set to begin at 5 p.m. that day, but there were quickly signs of trouble. Bettinger says that, before the trial even started, her outside lawyer, Charles Weber, and her UJC-assigned "counselor"—her student defender—were pulled into a private meeting to discuss the panel instructions for the case, along with Bryant's lawyer and counselor.
Ahead of the trial, Weber says, he had made an informal agreement with university counsel on the content of the panel instructions—but the instructions presented at trial were completely different than what he expected. "I worked with the university counsel prior to the trial to get a good panel instruction," he says. "And I thought we had an agreement. And when we came to the trial, the panel instruction looked nothing at all like what I thought the agreement was."
Weber told me that the panel instructions were highly confusing. "It was convoluted…if you gave it to a jury out here, they'd pull their hair out trying to figure out what the heck it means," he says. "We lodged our objections to it when it was done. We were not given any opportunity to actually state our objections on the record." (The Office of the University Counsel did not respond to repeated requests for additional comment.)
According to Bettinger, this discussion lasted around 20 minutes. The confusing instructions stood. Bettinger and Weber told me that the trial itself lasted for hours, starting with Bryant's side of the case and ending with Bettinger's around 12 a.m.
Bettinger and Weber both claim that, during the trial, several of Bryant's own witnesses offered testimony inconsistent with the claims Bryant originally made in her complaint to the UJC. They claim two of Bryant's witnesses said Bettinger spoke only to the truck driver—statements that matched witness reports from the school's civil rights investigation later. In Bryant's original complaint, though, she never mentioned Bettinger speaking to a truck driver, only directly to protesters.
Around 3 or 4 a.m., Weber says, the jury—which the UJC bylaws call a "trial panel" made up of individual "judges"—came back with their verdict. They had found Bettinger guilty.
"I think I was numb. That's probably the best way I could describe it," Bettinger says. "I wasn't going to give them the satisfaction of making a face, making a sound, crying. I wasn't going to have any emotion."
Bettinger would have to wait nearly three days to learn her punishment. It was agonizing. "I was so physically sick over just the stress of it all," she recalls. "I was in the bathroom throwing up."
On September 28, Bettinger was sentenced: 50 hours of community service with a social justice organization, three meetings with an assigned professor to teach her about "police community relations," an apology letter to Bryant, and the expulsion in abeyance.
It's difficult to know for sure why the jury decided to find Bettinger guilty, as they left little trace of their rationale. But a short paragraph read to Bettinger at her trial, which was obtained by Reason, does contain a clue.
"We the judges of this trial panel find that your actions on July 17th were shameful and put members of the community at risk," the jury began. "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. 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 posed."
It was a strange statement. The jury didn't dispute Bettinger's version of what she said. Yet it still punished her, harshly, because of the cultural, political, and geographical context of her speech. In essence, the UJC jury found that, even if Bettinger was telling the truth about what she said that day, merely uttering the words speed bumps sufficiently near the location of Heather Heyer's death was enough to transform the statement into a true threat.
It's impossible to know why the student jury punished Bettinger without full access to the panel instructions. But what's unmistakable is the decision's distinctly partisan tone. In effect, the UJC sentenced her to ideological retraining. It's hard not to imagine the effect that mass student outrage may have had on the verdict.
There was one glimmer of hope for Bettinger—one that she clung to as she wrapped her mind around what was happening. Despite the verdict, the UJC jury seemed to agree that she was telling the truth.
Bettinger spent the next few months in a flurry, appealing her UJC verdict and attempting to finish her senior year. Meanwhile, another investigation was underway—an inquiry by professional investigators at the university's Office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights (EOCR). This was in response to a different complaint Bryant filed, alleging Bettinger had harassed her on the basis of her race.
When the investigation was completed in June 2021, it arrived at a rather different conclusion than the UJC's. Not only did it find that Bettinger didn't legally harass Bryant, but it painted a picture of just how shaky Bryant's allegations were.
According to a copy of the EOCR report obtained by Reason, individuals interviewed by the EOCR alleged that Bettinger made five separate statements with the term "speed bumps." The only one found to have sufficient evidence supporting it—the claim that Bettinger said something with "speed bumps" in it while talking to the truck driver—was the one that Bettinger herself never denied. It also was the one allegation made not by Bryant but solely by other witnesses interviewed by the EOCR.
Three of Bryant's four allegations were not corroborated by other witnesses, even though they allegedly occurred in front of a large crowd. Two separate times, according to the report, Bryant made an allegation, then later claimed she heard something else, or even that she wasn't sure she heard something at all.
The fourth allegation—that Bettinger shouted that protesters would make "good speed bumps" over the top of her car—did have one other witness backing it up. But the report noted that this witness contradicted both themselves and Bryant during their interviews. Meanwhile, Bryant later changed her mind on this claim, telling investigators that she actually wasn't sure she heard Bettinger say this at all.
Most damningly, the EOCR report found that it was "more likely than not" that Bryant learned that Bettinger had made a "speed bumps" remark not firsthand but during a moment Bryant herself had captured on video—a moment where she appeared to overhear a third-party discussion of Bettinger's alleged statements. "Based on Bryant's immediate and surprised tone following the second third party's reply, EOCR finds it more likely than not that it was at that moment Bryant first learned that [Bettinger] made a statement about protestors making speed bumps," the report wrote. (Reached for comment, Bryant declined to answer questions on the record.)
After the EOCR released its report, Bettinger was relieved but frustrated. "Yes, I was vindicated," she told me. "But just because they found the correct answer, in some sense, didn't get rid of everything I had just gone through."
Viewing the EOCR investigation as an exoneration, Weber sent a letter to UVA President Jim Ryan asking for his intervention in overturning Bettinger's UJC sanction. At first, Ryan ignored the request.
But then FIRE got involved in the case, sending another letter to Ryan alleging the school had violated Bettinger's First Amendment rights. After receiving FIRE's letter, Ryan responded by denying both Weber and FIRE's legal appeals, writing to FIRE: "As President, it would be inappropriate for me to intervene in a case that has been properly adjudicated." When reached for comment, a university spokesperson declined to comment further, and directed Reason to Ryan's letter to FIRE.
A Future in Limbo
Bryant has thrived since the incident. She received a glowing Washington Post profile in 2021, and last year she was named to Ebony's "Power 100" list and was featured in a Juneteenth-themed post on Instagram's official page.
Meanwhile, Bettinger lives in a state of limbo. She had been a first-generation college student. Her father, a police officer, died of cancer six years before the incident. With such a severe mark on her disciplinary record, law school feels permanently out of reach. She still lives and works in the Charlottesville area—she won't say where, out of fear of being stalked at her new job.
Though the allegation against Bettinger was always flimsy, the damage it did to her reputation has not been reversed. It didn't matter there was never any evidence that she had threatened protesters. At times, it didn't even seem to matter that she was a person at all, a young woman who deserved the benefit of the doubt.
"This whole situation has had a huge impact on my life," Bettinger says. "The university has never had to answer for what their actions have done."
*CORRECTION: The original version of the story mischaracterized the sequence of complaints to the UJC.
The post How an Ill-Informed Internet Mob Ruined a UVA Student's Life appeared first on Reason.com.