Posted on May 1, 2023

How an Ill-Informed Internet Mob Ruined a UVA Student’s Life

Emma Camp, Reason, April 24, 2023

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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.”


{snip} 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. {snip}


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. {snip} With such a severe mark on her disciplinary record, law school feels permanently out of reach. {snip}