The call came in to Austin Tong’s parents’ Long Island home just before 10:30 p.m. His dad answered, but the man on the phone wanted Austin.
On the other end of the line were two Fordham University security officers.
They were also, they said, right outside.
“My dad gave me the phone,” Tong recalls. “The guy said, ‘This is whoever whoever from Fordham, and we’re from public safety. And we’re on your street right now.’”
“My eyes went big.”
‘A brighter future…’
It was late on the night of June 4. Earlier that day, Tong — a rising Fordham senior studying business, who immigrated to America from China when he was 6 — had been reflecting on how grateful he was to live in a free society. On that same date in 1989, Chinese troops drove tanks into a pro-democracy demonstration led predominantly by outspoken college students like Tong, in what would come to be known internationally as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
The extent of the brutalities that day has long been the subject of speculation. The Chinese government routinely gave the number of dead as approximately 200, while protest leaders estimated several thousand died. But in 2017, a declassified secret cable from a British ambassador put the death toll at a staggering 10,000. Sent the day after the massacre and citing a trusted source within China’s ruling State Council, the haunting dispatch revealed — in clipped, telegram style — additional gruesome details about how 200,000 Chinese government troops with more than 100 tanks overwhelmed the young protesters in brutal fashion:
“Students understood they were given one hour to leave square but after five minutes [armoured personnel carriers] attacked.”
“Students linked arms but were mown down including soldiers. APCs then ran over bodies time and time again to make ‘pie’ and remains collected by bulldozer. Remains incinerated and then hosed down drains.”
“Four wounded girl students begged for their lives but were bayoneted.”
Tong said what happened in Tiananmen Square that day shaped the course of his life.
“Tiananmen is an important discussion every year when the time comes,” Tong said. “My family moved here to America because of the opportunities and freedoms it provides. My parents want me to have a bright future here.”
So on June 4, Tong posted to Instagram a memorial for those killed at Tiananmen Square. The photo seemed to contrast the tragedy with the realization of his own American dream: A sunny backyard on a summer day, a freshly-mowed lawn, a BBQ grill — and Tong with a half-smile holding a Smith & Wesson rifle.
“Don’t tread on me,” he captioned the post, appending the historic date of the massacre as a hashtag: “#198964.”
“It was supposed to be casual,” Tong said of the picture. “Not a photo shoot for national news.”
But well before Fordham security officers showed up at his door that night, the Austin Tong story was already on a crash course with major news headlines.
And that was just the beginning.
Before the summer was over, Tong would find himself fighting in court to defend his freedom of speech, serving as the catalyst for a formal investigation into Fordham’s practices by the United States government, and becoming the unlikely poster boy — gun and all — for the rights of American college students everywhere.
‘It is your free speech, but I’m representing the university…’
Tong’s Tiananmen Square Instagram post drew support, but also immediate criticism from some students who saw it. Many of them had also seen a post Tong made the previous day, when he uploaded a picture of retired St. Louis police captain David Dorn.
“Y’all a bunch of hypocrites,” Tong captioned the photo.
Dorn, who was black, was killed in St. Louis by looters after protests over the death of George Floyd turned violent. Tong objected to what he charactarized as society’s “nonchalant” attitude over Dorn’s murder. Tong said he felt Dorn’s life — and violent death — were not getting the attention they deserved.
The social media backlash was swift, and Fordham says it immediately received complaints about Tong’s posts. Specifically, some suggested Tong’s reference to Tiananmen Square could instead have been a threatening response to those who criticized his post about David Dorn.
“Fordham has acted more like the Chinese government than an American university.”
But in context, that conclusion was clearly a stretch. Commemorations of the massacre, which are censored in China, are commonplace worldwide on social media every year on its anniversary.
The security officers that visited Tong’s home at Fordham’s behest quickly concluded as much, determining Tong had purchased his firearm legally and did not pose a threat to campus. Then they left.
A few hours later, one of them called Tong again.
“It was after midnight, actually. And he called me saying that I should take down the posts. He said, ‘You wouldn’t want people calling the police’, because of my posts. Because I have a gun.”
“And I said, ‘It’s my free speech.’”
“He said ‘It is your free speech, but I’m representing the university, and on their behalf, I’m asking you to take them down.’”
“He said, ‘We’ll put this matter behind us.’ Something like that. And he gave the word that there would be no punishments.”
“Obviously, they did not follow their own words,” Tong said.
Within days, Fordham opened a formal investigation into Tong’s Instagram posts, and held a June 10 hearing. More than a month later, on July 14, Fordham notified Tong he had been found guilty of violating university policies on “bias and/or hate crimes” and “threats/intimidation.” Tong’s probation banned him from physically visiting campus without prior approval and from taking leadership roles in student organizations. (Tong had previously been active in student government as a vice president and student senator.) He was also required to write an apology letter and complete implicit bias training.
“They committed the bias, but I’m going through bias training,” Tong said with a wry laugh. “That’s funny.”
Failure to comply with any of Fordham’s terms, Tong’s sanction letter stated, would result in “immediate suspension or expulsion from the university.”
FIRE wrote to Fordham with our objections shortly thereafter.
“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 FIRE Program Officer Lindsie Rank. “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.”
When Fordham security showed up at his door, Tong said he wasn’t sure whether to let them in.
“At the time, what was I supposed to do?” Tong said. “I’m a rising senior and I didn’t want to jeopardize my possibilities in the future, and so I complied.”
But Tong said it soon became clear what needed to be done.
“When you comply, it just gets worse.”
Tong sued Fordham in late July, naming the university’s president and the administrator who oversaw his disciplinary action as defendants.
“I’m suing the president and also the dean of students, because they’re not scared at all,” he said. “They’re hiding behind these institutions. As young people, we have to hold these people accountable.”
(Just a few months earlier a New York court found that Keith Eldredge, the dean who punished Tong, had violated Fordham students’ expressive rights in a separate case.)
Because he’s fighting the charges in court, Tong may just be able to complete his senior year. As an interim measure while Tong’s lawsuit progresses, Fordham has allowed him back on campus — provided he notifies the school in advance, reports to the security office first, and has an officer follow him everywhere he goes.
“To monitor me,” Tong said, “and pretend I’m a threat.”
The suit has taken on an additional dimension, with the intervention of the U.S. government on Tong’s behalf. In a first, the Department of Education formally announced in last month that it was concerned Fordham had broken its promises of free expression in the Tong case — which could expose the university to liability of up to $58,328 per violation.
This is the first time, to FIRE’s knowledge, that a private college has been subject to a Department of Education investigation on the basis that its conduct is inconsistent with its promises of freedom of expression. The department has undertaken a similar investigation at UCLA, but that institution is public — and bound to provide free expression by the Constitution.
“The people who don’t like me, they know I’m not a threat.”
Tong says he’s sure the department’s broad inquiry will uncover some sort of wrongdoing.
“I’m very confident about this.” he said. “They’re going to find something.”
‘Just like any other boy’
Austin Tong wants you to know that he’s a reasonable person.
“All I can say is, I’m just a regular guy.”
“I’m just like any other boy. I play sports sometimes. I play video games. I think I’m a good person. I think I’m a friendly person,” Tong said. “But I’d have to say I’m a strong person, too, because I do like to say my views.”
And when people criticize or try to censor him?
“I don’t give a damn.”
Tong says he did try to work with Fordham, until it gave him no choice but to sue.
“If you back down, people will take advantage of that. And that’s what happened to me,” Tong said. “You back down, your life’s ruined. Whether it’s physically, materially, or spiritually.”
“Don’t back down. Don’t be a sheep.”
Tong says he should have been preparing for a very different next chapter, with his sights set on studying business at Columbia University.
“I wanted to apply for graduate school. And as a business student, I’d had many options. I could go to a bank. I could go to a big firm. I could also do my own business. There were a lot of possibilities.”
Those possibilities, he says, are now far fewer.
“Fordham branding me as a hate-crimer, and branding me as a threat,” he said, “tarnishes my record.”
Had Fordham kept its free speech promises, and had Fordham students and administrators believed in a culture of free expression, perhaps none of this would have happened.
Tong doesn’t believe anyone involved, whether Fordham or the critical students on social media, ever really feared that he might commit violence because he chose to take a photo with a gun.
“The people who don’t like me, they know I’m not a threat.”
He contends they simply objected to his views.
Despite the “mean” messages — and even threats of violence — that he received on his Instagram posts, Tong said he got a lot of support, including a substantial amount from students who messaged him privately, for fear of retribution for championing him publicly.
Tong says their reticence to speak up doesn’t bother him.
“I totally understand them,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it irks me. I wouldn’t say it annoys me. I would say. . . I understand it. And I will say that if they don’t wanna speak, then I can speak for them.”
“But I do hope that my case, and hopefully the victories we’ll have, will empower the people who have opinions that they’re scared to share.”
Austin Tong believes this case is about so much more than his social media posts, or whether he’ll graduate, or what job he can get in the future.
As a Chinese immigrant whose family fled a repressive government — a country where college students like him have been murdered by the government for simply expressing their views — Tong worries that American students fighting against free expression don’t understand the gravity of what they’re doing.
Every time a student asks a university to investigate or punish a peer for simply expressing a controversial viewpoint, Tong argues, everyone’s right to free expression erodes a little more.
“Most countries in the world don’t have privileges that Americans have, which is the right to speak without any legal consequence,” Tong said. “They don’t understand that.”
“They’re trying to topple a system that allows them to speak their mind.”
So Tong says he will fight for the rights of his fellow students to speak out, even if a growing subset of them don’t seem to understand why doing so is important.
“I do hope that if people see an opinion they don’t like, then they can say their own opinion,” he said. “I think that’s what American dialogue should be about. That’s what human dialogue should be about. I don’t think that you should push people down because you don’t like what they say.”
Accordingly, Tong doesn’t want extra credit for supporting what he believes should be a human right.
“I’m not a hero. I’m just a regular student that was put into this position.”
He hopes even students who disagree with his views, might be persuaded to support his right to express them. After all, Tong’s freedom to speak his mind on social media is the same as the right of his most virulent critic to do the same.
Fordham’s policies guarantee such freedoms for all students. At least in theory. Tong said he is committed to helping make those promises a reality. Other students, he adds, can help.
“I will say, for young people, the best thing you can do to hold these institutions accountable is to speak up about it,” Tong said. “And if they really did something wrong, sue them.”
“These people are abusing what they have,” Tong said, pausing just long enough to consider what remains at stake in his fight with Fordham.
“The power to decide your future.”