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University of Virginia won’t expunge record of student who allegedly joked about running over protesters

Student had been cleared of any wrongdoing by university officials 

The University of Virginia allowed for First Amendment violations when a student committee punished a student who made a joke about running over protesters.

Furthermore, it refuses to expunge the alumna’s record despite a misapplication of the law, according to a civil liberties nonprofit.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote that in July 2020, “former UVA student Morgan Bettinger found a road on her route home from work blocked by protesters and a garbage truck. She got out of her car and told the truck driver, ‘It’s a good thing that you are here because, otherwise, these people would have been speed bumps.’”

Nearby protesters heard her comments and reported her to the university. The protest by Black Women Matter Noise happened in Charlottesville, where several years ago a white supremacist killed a woman with his car.

Cleared by university officials in the civil rights office, Bettinger faced, and fulfilled, a community service and sensitivity training imposed on her by the University Judiciary Committee. Had she not finished her punishment, she could not have graduated in May 2021.

MORE: College apologizes for play 11 years later

The Judicial Review Board upheld the punishment.

However, UVA has refused to remediate what FIRE sees as a violation of Bettinger’s First Amendment rights. It sent a letter to the public university but were rejected in its efforts.

“This is unacceptable,” Sabrina Conza, program analyst with FIRE, told The College Fix via email. “Investigations and punishments can have ongoing consequences beyond a student’s undergraduate years,” Conza said. “If Morgan Bettinger, or another student who was punished for protected expression, were to consider attending graduate school, had to undergo a background check, or needed security clearance, an undergraduate sanction could serve as a barrier.”

“In imposing sanctions for protected speech, UVA has unnecessarily exposed itself to legal liability,” Conza said, when asked about Bettinger’s legal options. “Fortuitously, doing the right thing and doing the diligent thing, from the eyes of the taxpayers that fund the university, are one and the same: UVA should rescind the sanctions against Morgan Bettinger.”

When asked why removing the mark on her record was important, since the story of what Bettinger did is already public, Conza said that “UVA has the responsibility to right its wrong.” For the future, it will “give the university credibility, when, in the future, it says it can’t punish protected speech.”

She also said that “rescinding official sanctions can have a practical effect” by removing it from future background checks or security clearances, for example.

UVA President James Ryan said that he wanted to stay out of the controversy. “I have no basis to find that the investigative or adjudicative process was infected with significant procedural errors that would warrant expungement,” Ryan wrote in his August letter. “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.”

“Regardless of whether the student-led committee received accurate information about the law, it inaccurately applied it — and punished a student for constitutionally protected expression,” FIRE wrote in its blog update. “This violates both UVA’s constitutional obligations and commitments to free expression. This is immoral and illegal at a public institution like UV.”

Vice President for Communications and Chief Marketing Officer David Martel did not respond to two emailed requests for comment from The College Fix, sent in the past two weeks.

MORE: Public university bans ‘demeaning’ comments

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About the Author
Lela Gallery -- Mount Holyoke College