EXCLUSIVE: Student says university imposed 'Soviet-style' punishment over his Instagram posts
- Fordham University student Austin Tong says he received a letter stating that Instagram posts he shared violated university policy.
- One of the posts in question was of the black former police captain killed amid nationwide riots.
- The other post showed Tong holding a rifle pointed the ground.
A rising senior at Fordham University has provided Campus Reform with letters he allegedly received from the school's dean of students notifying him that two of his posts shared on his personal social media violated the university's student conduct code and that he has been placed on probation as a result.
Austin Tong provided Campus Reform with two letters he said he received from Fordham University Dean of Students Keith Eldredge. The first letter, dated June 8, allegedly informed Tong that the university had launched an investigation to determine whether two of his Instagram posts violated university policy.
The first post, shared on Tong's personal Instagram account on June 3, shows a picture of David Dorn, the retired African-American police captain who was fatally shot while defending a friend’s pawn shop amid violent protests in St. Louis, and includes the caption, “Y’all a bunch of hypocrites.”
When asked about his motivations behind the post, Tong told Campus Reform, “I expressed my disappointment in people that did not care about the death of a Black policeman, something which never should’ve happened.”
In a letter to Fordham, Tong said he further explained his position stating, “I believe that Black Lives Matter means that all Black Lives matter, including the lost life of a patriotic police officer that dedicated his life to his family and country This post was not only expressive of my remorse that a police officer’s life was lost, but also to reaffirm my belief that the lives of everyone matter."
Tong's post came just days after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, sparking nationwide protests and riots.
Tong's second post shows him holding a firearm, which he says he purchased legally, pointed toward the ground. The post contains the caption, “Don’t tread on me. #198964.” The hashtag references the Tiananmen Square Incident, which occurred on June 4, 1989.
Tong told Campus Reform with regard to this post, “I want to honor the memory of an important Chinese Democracy Movement and the appreciation of the right to bear arms in America.” He said, “As an immigrant, a big beauty of America to me is the right it gives its citizens to bear arms, not only to protect themselves but also to keep the government in check."
Tong said he received a letter from Eldredge informing him that an investigation into his actions had been opened. The letter, dated June 8, cited possible violations of "regulations relating to bias and/or hate crimes," "threats/intimidation," and "disorderly conduct."
The letter, which was provided to Campus Reform, invited Tong to participate in a "disciplinary" hearing to further discuss the matter.
In a second letter dated July 14, a copy of which was also provided to Campus Reform, Eldredge allegedly informed Tong that he had been found in violation of "regulations relating to bias and/or hate crimes" and for "threats/intimidation."
As part of Tong's disciplinary probation, which will remain in effect until he graduates, Tong is forbidden from representing the university in any official capacity. This includes a ban on him running for or holding leadership roles in student organizations and participation in varsity or club sports. Tong's access to the university campus without permission from the dean has also been restricted and he is required to complete the rest of his courses online. Tong must also undergo implicit bias training with the Office of Multicultural Affairs and write an apology letter.
Tong posted a note to his Instagram profile explaining the situation and announcing that he "will be taking legal action" unless he is "given a fair and just answer." Tong said that he was "in no way expressing threatening or hateful thoughts." Rather, he said he intended to express his "appreciation of the 2nd Amendment" and mark the "anniversary of a Chinese Democratic movement."
Tong went on to say that he was subjected to "Soviet-style interrogation and punishment" by a university that claims to protect free speech.
"America is under attack. Americans are being silenced. I hope to use my punishment as a milestone and reflection of the constitutional crisis we are facing today as a society. 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...Not simply did Fordham University break its promise and punish me, but it signaled to students nationwide that free speech is a political trap that will destroy you."
Tong also strongly emphasized his “desire to make this about free speech, and not race” when speaking with Campus Reform.
Fordham University did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Campus Reform in time for publication.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education announced Friday that it sent a letter to Fordham saying that the sanctions against Tong should be rescinded. The student rights advocacy group stated, "As a private institution, Fordham is not bound by the First Amendment. But it is bound by the explicit, repeated, and unequivocal promises of freedom of expression it makes to its students, including in its own 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.”
In its letter, FIRE reminds Fordham that "there is no 'hate speech' exception" in the First Amendment.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter:@Margaret_Beste