University punishes student for Instagram image memorializing Tiananmen

Fordham University has punished a senior student for posting on Instagram an image memorializing the Tiananmen Square massacre in China.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, responded with a letter to the university defending the student, Austin Tong. Fordham put Tong on probation, banning him from campus and requiring him to undergo indoctrination.

He had posted on Instagram an image of himself, off campus, holding a legally obtained gun. He added the caption, "Don't tread on me."

Tong, who emigrated from China as a child, posted the image on the 31st anniversary of the massacre of pro-democracy activists. He included an American flag emoji, a China flag emoji and a hashtag commonly used by Chinese citizens to avoid censorship of online discussions of the massacre, FIRE said.

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"When Tong immigrated to the United States from China at six years old, his family sought to ensure that he would be protected by the rights guaranteed by their new home, including the freedom of speech and the right to bear arms," wrote Program Officer Lindsie Rank, author of FIRE’s letter to Fordham.

"Here, however, Fordham has acted more like the Chinese government than an American university, placing severe sanctions on a student solely because of off-campus political speech."

FIRE protested to Fordham for placing Tong on probation for the image and a previous one, a photo of David Dorn, the retired St. Louis police captain killed by looters in the unrest following the killing of George Floyd.

The image included the caption, "Y'all a bunch of hypocrites." Tong, as a supporter of Black Lives Matter, was expressing frustration with what he described as "the nonchalant societal reaction over [Dorn’s] death."

The university put him under investigation. Dean of students Keith Eldredge eventually informed Tong he was guilty of violating university policies on "bias and/or hate crimes" and "threats/intimidation."

Tong’s probation bans him from visiting campus without prior approval, taking leadership roles in student organizations and participating in athletics. He is also required to complete implicit bias training and write an apology letter.

"While what happened to me is a total disgrace, I hope to use my example as an opportunity for the millions of people out there that fear to freely speak, and to protest the serious case of speech censorship in college campuses," said Tong.

"As the country is facing a disastrous constitutional crisis, it is no time to stay silent, and we have been silent for way too long. It only takes the courage of the few to spark the patriotism of many. We will use this opportunity to let the world know that now is the time that we must speak loudly, fight for our rights, and let those who silence speech know they will face consequences."

FIRE explained that 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."

FIRE already has given its worst rating to Fordham on FIRE's list of "Worst Colleges for Free Speech."

FIRE noted a state court ruled last year that Fordham violated its promises of freedom expression in censoring a pro-Palestinian student organization. Fordham has appealed the decision.