2021 College alumna Morgan Bettinger’s lawyer published a draft of a lawsuit last month alleging that the University violated Bettinger’s first amendment and due process rights. In 2020, Bettinger was sanctioned in a University Judiciary Committee trial over a statement she made at the site of a protest. Bettinger claims that the legacy of the UJC trial damaged her mental health and her reputation. The lawsuit has not been filed.
The draft lawsuit identifies University President Jim Ryan and Board of Visitors members as defendants. Demands include expunging and destroying the records of Bettinger’s UJC trial, issuing a letter of apology, revising the UJC appellate procedures to be in line with constitutional due process standards, awarding Bettinger for damages to her emotional well-being and reputation and paying for her attorney’s fees.
Bettinger faced public backlash after an interaction with local protesters when driving home from work July 17, 2020. After encountering a road blocked by a public works truck to cut the protesters off from potential traffic, Bettinger got out of her car and spoke to the truck driver, saying something to the effect of "It's a good thing you're here, otherwise they could be made speed bumps."
Zyahna Bryant, fourth-year College student and local activist, tweeted about Bettinger’s comments. After being reported to UJC, a trail ensued. UJC found Bettinger guilty of “threatening health or safety” of University students through her comments and sanctioned her to 50 hours of community service, to meet with Batten professor Brian Williams to learn about police-community relations and write Bryant a personal letter of apology.
Following the UJC ruling, the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights also conducted an investigation into whether Bettinnger harassed Bryant due to her race after Bryant filed a complaint with the EOCR. The investigation ultimately did not find evidence that Bettinger had racially harassed Bryant, and wrote that Bettinger’s comment was “not clearly threatening on its face,” per the draft.
Bettinger also appealed the UJC decision to the University Judicial Review Board — a group of 15 students, faculty and staff members who hear appeals to UJC cases. In April 2021, the JRB upheld Bettinger’s conviction and the UJC decision.
According to the UJC’s website, students found guilty in their trial may request an appellate hearing, but motions for appeal will only be granted due to any procedural errors during the initial trial, new evidence discovered, or an “unduly harsh, clearly excessive, or grossly inappropriate” sanction. The JRB cannot review cases for mistakes “of substantive law and sufficiency of the evidence,” per the draft.
Following the EOCR findings, Bettinger and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — a civil liberties group that aims to protect free speech on college campuses — both sent letters July 2021 to President Jim Ryan demanding that the University expunge Bettinger’s sanctions.
In his response, dated Aug. 18 2021, Ryan refused to interfere with the student-run UJC investigation.
“As President, it would be inappropriate for me to intervene in a case that has been properly adjudicated and reviewed by the UJC and JRB,” Ryan said. “Accordingly, I must deny your request to expunge the UJC's findings and sanction.”
Bettinger’s lawyer claims that Bettinger’s “conviction and punishment were effectuated without a constitutionally sufficient process” because the University failed to retry Bettinger or provide a “de novo review of the clearly erroneous judgment of the UJC.”
In a written statement to the Cavalier Daily, University spokesperson Brian Coy said that the UJC was given “legally accurate panel instructions regarding free speech” and applied a “correct standard of evidence” to Bettinger’s case.
“The University of Virginia’s tradition of student self-governance empowers students to evaluate and adjudicate allegations of misconduct by their peers,” Coy said. “A University evaluation of this case determined that Ms. Bettinger received a fair hearing and review by both the UJC and the Judicial Review Board, a panel of students, faculty and staff unaffiliated with the UJC who are tasked with hearing appeals of UJC cases.”
While the lawsuit has not yet been filed, Bettinger’s lawyer said that if University officials continue to refuse to expunge the sanctions, he will officially file it.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Bryant's tweets prompted an investigation from UJC. Instead a report was sent to UJC and a trail ensured. The article has been corrected to reflect these changes.