A Fordham University student is threatening to sue the university after it placed him on disciplinary probation for Instagram posts commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre and memorializing a black retired police officer killed during a riot in St. Louis, Mo., last month.
Fordham found that rising senior Austin Tong’s posts violated its policies on “bias and/or hate crimes” and “threats/intimidation.” The probation restricts his access to campus, forcing him to finish his degree online, and bars him from participating in extracurricular activities. The university also ordered Tong to complete implicit bias training and to write a letter of apology.
Tong captioned the photo “Y’all a bunch of hypocrites,” which he said in a statement was meant to express his frustration, as a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, with “the nonchalant societal reaction over [Dorn’s] death.”
The following day, on the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy activists, he posted a photo of himself holding a legally purchased rifle, off-campus, with the caption “Don’t tread on me. #198964.”
The post has received over 900 comments, a mix of support and criticism, with many tagging Fordham’s account and demanding that disciplinary action be taken against Tong.
Public safety officers visited Tong on the evening of the post, subjecting him to questioning about his possession of a firearm and the intent of his posts, the Epoch Times reported. Dean of Students Keith Eldredge informed Tong he was under investigation for the social media posts in a June 8 letter.
The university concluded its investigation on July 14, at which time it placed Tong on probation beginning July 17.
He defended his posts in a letter to the university on Instagram, writing, “I expressed my appreciation of the 2nd Amendment and mourning of the anniversary of a Chinese Democratic movement by posting a picture of my legally purchased rifle in my home, and my sympathetic feeling toward Black Police Officer David Dorn.”
“The content of both posts are fully by my love for this country, fully within the boundaries of law and university code, and in no way expressing threatening or hateful thoughts — yet the University subjectively and maliciously assumed my intentions as hate crime and threat.”
As an immigrant from China, he had believed America is a nation of law and free speech, but that is “no longer the case,” he wrote.
“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.'”
Fordham, as a private institution, is not bound by the First Amendment.
But the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education says the university is, however, bound by its promises of freedom of expression in its mission statement: “Fordham strives for excellence in research and teaching and guarantees the freedom of inquiry required by rigorous thinking and the quest for truth.”
Lindsie Rank, a program officer for FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said, “Fordham has acted more like the Chinese government than an American university, placing severe sanction on a student solely because of off-campus political speech.”
FIRE has given Fordham its worst rating for free speech and has placed the university on its “Worst Colleges for Free Speech” list several years running. A New York court ruled last year that Fordham had violated its promises of freedom of expression in censoring a pro-Palestinian student organization. The university is still in the process of appealing that decision.
Tong has hired an attorney and is threatening legal action against Fordham “as far as the Supreme Court” if Fordham upholds its decision without providing a “just and reasonable answer.” He started a GoFundMe on July 17 to pay for litigation and so far has raised over $23k of his $350k goal.
Fordham’s behavior fits into a larger pattern of American colleges squelching students’ freedom of expression, Rank told National Review.
“It’s certainly a problem that we see at colleges nationwide where students across the political spectrum are finding themselves in trouble for things that they say, things that they post on social media,” she said. “They’re finding themselves not able to start student organizations that the administration might disagree with.”
National Review has reached out to Fordham University for comment.