Fordham student banned from campus over armed social media post files First Amendment lawsuit


Lacey Kestecher, Campus Reform

  • Fordham University sanctioned student Austin Tong for posting an image on Instagram with a firearm on the anniversary of Tiananmen Square.
  • The lawsuit states that Fordham discriminated against Tong, despite knowing “that a significant motivation for Tong’s social media posts was his desire to recognize a historically significant event for Chinese-Americans.”

Fordham University student Austin Tong is suing the New York City school after he was banned from campus over a social media post showing him holding a firearm.

The lawsuit alleges that Tong’s posts should be “permitted exercise of free expression protected under Fordham’s policies and rules.”

As Campus Reform first reported, on the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, Tong, who immigrated to the U.S. from China at a young age, posted a photo of himself holding a legally-owned firearm on Instagram. On that same day, two Fordham Department of Public Safety agents were sent to Tong’s house around midnight, and they proceeded to interview him for any perceived threats.

Upon detecting that he was no threat to the community, the security agents left.

Tong then received a letter from Keith Eldredge, Assistant Vice Principal and Dean of Students at Fordham University, stating that he would have to go through an investigation for a possible violation of the University Code of Conduct. During Tong’s hearing, Eldredge said that “members of the Fordham community felt threatened by the social media posts.”

Eldredge had issued a list of “non-appealable and final” sanctions against Tong, including “University Disciplinary Probation.” The sanctions prevent Tong from engaging in any extracurricular activities at Fordham and will result in his “immediate suspension or expulsion” if they are violated. In addition, Tong is not allowed onto the Fordham campus unless he receives “permission from Eldredge and must complete the 2020-21 academic year via online instruction.”

According to the lawsuit, “Tong will not and should not have to comply with either of these requirements because he plainly did not violate any Fordham policies or rules and will not and should not have to submit to punishment for exercising his constitutional rights, and will not and should not have to compromise his good faith beliefs, principles, and virtues.”

The lawsuit continues by stating that Fordham’s disciplinary actions, taken against Tong, have “violated its own policies and rules which unequivocally commit the University to the protection and encouragement of free speech and expression.” The lawsuit further states that speech at Fordham University is protected by the First Amendment and the university’s own policies, allowing for everyone to express “differing viewpoints, even viewpoints that may be controversial or make some individuals uncomfortable.”

The university had also “imposed irrational disciplinary sanctions against Tong,” the lawsuit reads.

Accordingly, “Tong is entitled to an Order of Judgment,” claiming that the social media posts which caused the university to take disciplinary action “constitute permitted exercise of free expression protected under Fordham’s policies and rules.”

As stated by the lawsuit, Fordham had “breached their end of the bargain with respect to the implied contract by imposing irrational discipline against Tong as set forth herein.” Due to the university’s actions, “Tong is entitled to damages incidental to the primary relief requested herein,” the lawsuit asserts.

Fordham University did not respond to Campus Reform‘s request for comment.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @KestecherLacey

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