The full interview can be watched here.
If you did not go to UVA in the 2020–2021 school year, the name Morgan Bettinger probably does not ring a bell. Her story did not make national headlines. But it is a story worth telling, for it is one of the most alarming examples of how deeply cancel culture has infested American institutions.
As justified as outrage has been over campaigns to cancel celebrities like Joe Rogan, Dave Chappelle, or Gina Carrano, the consequences of cancel culture are much more severe when they affect those who do not have the backing of public opinion. What Morgan had to endure is a fate that is affecting more and more regular Americans every day— on and off campus. After one unlucky incident, she suddenly became the target of a vicious smear campaign that threatened to destroy her career and reputation.
But Morgan’s story is also one of perseverance and defiance. “If I didn’t have the strength of my faith, I wouldn’t have been able to get through this,” says the Class of 2021 graduate in an exclusive interview with the Jefferson Independent. “I was one individual person going against a whole big institution. That was really terrifying. I wouldn’t be here without my friends and family supporting me through all of this.”
Morgan Bettinger’s encounter with the dark forces of cancel culture began on a sunny July day when she was driving home from her summer job. Returning from a twelve-hour shift, Morgan was on her way out of downtown Charlottesville when a dump truck blocking High Street forced her to stop. At the time, Morgan did not know that the driver had purposely parked the truck there to shield a Black Lives Matter protest that had gathered in front of the Charlottesville courthouse. Two other vehicles blocked 4th Street, and Morgan was caught in a cul-de-sac.
There were no police around. So, Morgan walked up to the truck driver to ask him what was going on. The two started having what Buddy Weber, Morgan’s attorney, describes as a “minor chit-chat.” Even though she was tired, Morgan and the truck driver had a friendly conversation joking about working overtime. During their conversation, Morgan cracked a sarcastic joke with the truck driver: “Well, it’s good that you’re here, otherwise these people could become speedbumps.” An obvious joke— off-color, but not mean-spirited by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, her comment was misheard by a group of protestors.
Soon afterward, an increasing crowd of BLM protestors started following Morgan. They began shouting at her, threatening her, and filming her. Intimidated, Morgan retreated to her car. Knowing of the wave of violence brought forth by BLM across American cities that summer, Morgan had every reason to be concerned. Still caught in a one-way street, she locked herself in her car as the angry mob began to circle it. At least one of them began banging on the car while she was inside. Asked what she felt at the moment, Morgan said, “I was terrified of what could happen, and what did happen was absolutely horrendous.” She called the police, and even though the department was just two blocks away from her location, it took them six achingly long minutes to arrive. “The protestors had blocked off the road illegally. The police officers couldn’t even get to me to help if they [the protestors] had done anything else putting my life in danger.”
The protestors scattered when the police finally arrived and safely escorted Morgan back to 3rd Street. She drove away slowly and carefully, wary of any protesters willing to jump in front of her car to cause a stir. As the mob continued taking pictures of her car and license plate, she drove back home, not suspecting that her nightmare was only just beginning.
Later that evening, Morgan got a concerned phone call from one of her friends asking if she was alright. Confused, she checked her social media, only to find it filled with hateful messages and threats of violence. Morgan had become a victim of what is known as “doxxing,” a common strategy among the radical left that publicizes sensitive data about private persons and urges people to persecute them online or in person. She was absolutely horrified: “Not only did they start attacking me now, but they were also going after my family. That means even more to me. It is one thing to go after me, I can defend myself. But when you go after my family that is another level and something I am absolutely not okay with.” The police got involved the next morning.
Morgan is sure that at least some of these threats were serious: “Some of the threats said that if they were to see me in public, I needed to watch my back. Someone said they wanted to light my car on fire and wished I was in it. I don’t know what would have happened if those people actually found me in person. I’m glad they haven’t.”
From there, it did not take long for Morgan to be identified as a UVA student. One of the protestors, Zyahna Bryant, soon started a “call to action.” Bryant posted what Buddy Weber describes as “a completely false narrative” of the events of July 17th, encouraging her fellow students to pressure the Deans of the University into investigating and punishing Morgan. She falsely stated that Morgan had maneuvered down a series of one-way streets, broke through two police barricades, and tried to drive around the dump truck to get to the protestors. Thus, she accused Morgan of “intentionally harassing and threatening the protestors.” She also described the harmless ‘speed bump’ joke as a true threat against the protestors— even though Bryant never heard Morgan’s comments first-hand.
Although the claims against Morgan were outlandish, the protestors’ strategy of initiating “a series of angry emails and phone calls” pressured the Dean of Students at the time, Allen Groves, into launching an investigation. Meanwhile, Bryant filed a harassment and discrimination complaint with the University’s Office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights (EOCR). Then, she doubled down by filing another complaint with the student-run University Judiciary Committee (UJC), accusing Morgan of breaching Student Standard of Conduct #2 and intentionally and recklessly threatening the health and safety of a fellow student. Morgan now faced three investigations at the same time in the midst of completing her degree requirements.
As Morgan remembers, the University was “not at all” interested in hearing her side of the story: “I felt like I was on the defensive side from day one. And in all honesty, if I wouldn’t have had an attorney looking out for me, I don’t think I would be where I am right now, I wouldn’t have graduated.”
The term “cancel culture” is widely used these days. But, as Weber explains, few people know the full scale of its impact. Cancel culture, he elaborates, does not mean mere attacks on a person’s moral integrity. Citing a statement from the free speech organization FIRE, the Charlottesville-based criminal defense attorney defines cancel culture as “[c]ampaigns to get people fired, disinvited, de-platformed, or otherwise punished for speech that is or would be protected by First Amendment standards.” “That is exactly what happened to Morgan,” Weber adds.
Having experienced it herself, Morgan’s views on cancel culture have changed as well: “I always knew that it was a thing, but I didn’t know how bad it was getting and how blatantly ridiculous it has become— how widespread it has become in our community. It shouldn’t have a place, it shouldn’t exist.”
The investigations certainly put Morgan’s academic career at risk: “With the UJC trial going forward, they sanctioned me, and if certain sanctions were not completed in due time, they were going to hold my diploma from me and not allow me to graduate.” These four sanctions, Morgan recounts, were a slap in her face: 50 hours of community service with a “social justice approved organization,” three hours of remedial education on police/community relations with a UVA professor whom the UJC would recommend, a written letter of apology to Zyahna Bryant, and the looming threat that if she was ever convicted of another Standard of Conduct #2 violation, she would automatically be expelled.
The third point, in particular, proved to be insulting to Morgan. Not only was she forced to admit that her harmless joke was “hurtful,” but she also had to apologize to a person who did not even hear it first-hand and who spread blatant lies about her on social media. Though Morgan was given no guideline on what to write in her apology, she describes the letter as “compelled speech.”
Weighing in on the alternatives, Morgan decided to do everything to protect and guarantee her ability to graduate. She completed all sanctions well in the time frame the UJC set for her and graduated with straight As in her final semester. “An amazing accomplishment over the year, considering what we had to go through just to get there,” her attorney says with praise. Still, the University still granted Morgan no relief.
She was already found guilty by the UJC when, shortly after her graduation, the EOCR issued its final report. “Once we got the EOCR report, it completely exonerated Morgan,” says Weber, who, in his more than 20 years as a lawyer, has never seen a case like this. “It basically said that the comment Morgan spoke to the truck driver was not threatening on its face. In other words, no reasonable person could have construed these words as a true threat. That was the underlying legal issue, even before the UJC got involved. They just danced around it, and never said that her words were a true threat. What they said was that her actions were shameful and that she needs to apologize for them.” Referring to his previous definition of cancel culture, it is obvious to Weber that Morgan’s career and reputation had been threatened over speech protected by her First Amendment rights.
“Now, with the EOCR report, we had two different findings from two different organizations within UVA. One said that she was guilty of threatening people, and the other said she didn’t threaten anybody,” Weber explains. Addressing these two conflicting findings, he drafted a letter to President Ryan, asking him to expunge her record. “The reason her record needs to be expunged,” the tenured attorney continues, “is because anytime she applies to a graduate school or a law school or a job, she has to disclose it. Then the employer will go back to UVA asking what happened and they would have to say that she got convicted of threatening people.” In other words, these—according to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights—false accusations would follow Morgan for the rest of her life. “The finding was inconsistent with the Constitution, and the University has no power to punish her for speech that is protected by the Constitution.”
President Ryan’s response, both Morgan and Weber say, was disappointing. Even when FIRE issued a second request after Weber’s first letter went unanswered, Ryan declined to expunge her record. “I was definitely discouraged but knowing things that have happened in the past at UVA and knowing the culture that it has become,” Morgan sighs, “I wasn’t entirely surprised.”
She is not alone in her sentiments. Through his work with Morgan, Weber got to know two other UVA students who faced similar threats of being canceled. “I detected a severe case of UVA not wanting to have these kids’ backs. That’s part of what’s prompting the cancel culture. Once students start canceling each other, the administration needs to step in and stop this process.” The tenured lawyer went on to slam the University administration’s negligence towards its students and cowardice towards the woke outrage mob: “When President Ryan says that the debate over Vice President Pence coming here proves that free speech is “alive and well” at UVA, I am not quite convinced that he is entirely right there. I think he ignores a lot of what is happening on Grounds. Especially because of the policies that he and his administration are putting in place.”
Though Morgan feels let down by UVA, she holds no grudge against the University or any of the people involved, including Zyahna Bryant. Nonetheless, she believes that if things were ever to change on Grounds, the University will have had to see a change in leadership first: “You have to have a backbone if you’re dealing with these types of things, and I think UVA is lacking that right now, unfortunately. It needs a strong person to stand up against cancel culture and I’m not seeing that right now at UVA.”
Despite all the distress they had to endure for almost two years, both Morgan Bettinger and Buddy Weber do not want to end this interview on a bitter note. Their critique of the University of Virginia comes not from a place of hate but from love and care for an institution too precious to surrender its foundational values. Especially after going through such a biased trial, Weber encourages the UVA community to “[b]e humble and gracious” and address disagreements on their merits instead of attacking the person.
Even looking back on the events since July 17th, 2020, Morgan is still grateful for her time at the University of Virginia. “My best experience at UVA,” she proclaims, “has been growing as a person. UVA has taught me a lot through this horrendous experience that I have been through.” When asked what message she has for the UVA community, Morgan encourages students to “stand up for what is right.” Both exhaustion and triumph echo in her voice: “Regardless if you are the only one standing up, don’t be ashamed of your beliefs. Stand up for that one person when you know what they’ve done was correct. Don’t cower because those around you are peer pressuring you.” May her voice reach and inspire the thousands of college students across the country who, in a society adamant on canceling others, remain too afraid to speak.
Some quotes have been slightly altered in syntax to provide a more pleasant read.