Austin Tong, a rising senior at Fordham University in New York, has been restricted from campus and forced to undergo what he described as “political reeducation” over Instagram posts deemed hateful and threatening by university officials.
In a June 14 letter Austin Tong shared with The Epoch Times, Fordham University Dean of Students Keith Eldredge notified Tong that he had been found in violation of “regulations relating to bias and/or hate crimes” and for “threats/intimidation” because of two Instagram posts he made last month.
One of the two posts in question was made on June 3, following a weekend marked by violence sparked by the death of a black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis police custody. The post features a picture of David Dorn, a black 77-year-old retired police officer who was killed trying to defended a pawnshop from looters during the Floyd riots. “Y’all a bunch of hypocrites,” Tong wrote in caption, expressing frustration that the tragedy didn’t receive the public attention that Floyd, a convicted felon, received.
The other post shows Tong holding a rifle, which he legally purchased. The caption reads “Don’t tread on me. #198964,” referencing the event known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 4, 1989, during which China’s communist regime ordered troops to open fire on hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing.
Tong, a U.S. citizen from a Chinese immigrant family, explained to The Epoch Times that it was not his intention to threaten or harm anyone with the image of him holding a rifle, but to mourn the lives lost to the bloody crackdown 21 years ago and to celebrate the right to bear arms—a right that is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution but absent in China under communist rule.
Yet, Tong soon found his posts flooded with comments from outraged Fordham students accusing him of “inciting anger,” failing to “show unity with our black brother and sisters,” and “hurting minority groups.”
“It has nothing to do with Black Lives Matter. It’s about appreciation of this country’s rights, but they don’t care,” Tong said. “I had hundreds of comments, and then what happened was, the school made a comment in my post that they would look into this.”
On the night of June 4, hours after Tong’s posts gained the university’s attention, a group of public safety officers paid Tong an unexpected visit, questioning him about his possession of a firearm and his intention behind those posts. A university investigation into Tong’s alleged violation of its code of conduct ensued over the following month, with it concluding that Tong’s action should be punished.
As part of his disciplinary probation, which will remain in effect until he graduates, Tong is banned from representing the university in any extracurricular activities or running for or holding leadership roles in student organizations. Tong can no longer enter the university campus without the dean’s permission, and he has to finish the remainder of the school year through remote learning. In what Tong described as a “Soviet nightmare,” the university is also demanding him to complete “implicit bias” training with the Office of Multicultural Affairs and write an apology letter.
“If I don’t do those stuff, I will be expelled or suspended,” Tong said. He argued that even though Fordham is not bound by the First Amendment as a private institution, it is still failing its own promise to allow freedom of expression.
“Coming to this country as an immigrant, one would think that America is a nation of law and free speech. Yet that is no longer the case,” Tong wrote in a June 14 letter addressing Fordham leadership. “I was forcibly silenced, faced verbal and assaulting harassment from mobs, and subjected to Soviet-style interrogation and punishment by a Jesuit university that claims in its own code of conduct, that it protects ‘freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas.'”
Tong told The Epoch Times that at Fordham, where President Donald Trump briefly attended, students are feeling pressure to conform to the prevailing left-leaning bias on campus.
“If you write that you support Trump, or anything that isn’t mainstream—economically, socially—you can get penalized,” he said, adding that a number of students sent him messages expressing support, but they chose not to do it publicly due to the fear of “communist mobs.”
Tong said he is considering legal action against Fordham unless the university retracts the punishment and offers an apology. “I will fight to the end, even if it means fighting to the U.S. Supreme court,” he wrote in the letter. “This is not the time to retreat in the dread of fear, this is the time to fight in the name of democracy.”
Last year, a group of Fordham students won a free speech lawsuit against the university, which tried to prohibit them from forming a pro-Palestinian club on campus. New York State Supreme Court Justice Nancy Bannon ruled (pdf) in favor of the students, deciding that Fordham violated its own rules when Dean of Students Keith Eldredge denied recognition to the club.
While she agreed that Fordham was “not expressly subject to First Amendment limitations,” Bannon noted that university’s mission statement ultimately invalidates Eldredge’s effort to reject the application of the Palestinian rights club “based on its potential for raising issues or taking positions that might be controversial or unpopular with a segment of the university.”
“The consideration and discussion of differing views is actually part of Fordham’s mission, regardless of whether that consideration and discussion might discomfit some and polarize others,” Bannon wrote in the court opinion.