In a sea of fear, one youth chooses to stand for his freedom — and yours, too
Summary: School administrators resisted. Students and teachers feared retaliation if they lent their support. But Luke Wong was determined to start a conservative club on his high school campus.
The phone on the desk at city hall was ringing again. Luke Wong, all of 16 and soon to be a junior in high school, knew the call was his to answer. This was why they paid volunteer summer interns so much money.
He didn’t know who was calling, but he had a pretty good idea what the call was about. It was the same thing every call had been about since the big storm hit his town of Harrison, just north of New York City, earlier in the week.
“It’s been two days,” a frail voice said, on the other end of the line.
“Yes, ma’am, I know, but …”
“There’s still no power!”
“Yes, ma’am. We —”
“I’m 97 years old.”
“Yes, ma’am. I completely understand.”
Gently, Luke explained once again that the mayor’s office had no power to turn the lights back on. City officials can clear a street. City officials can take away the tree that fell on somebody’s roof. But only the utility company can make electricity flow.
And yet, Luke was learning, people don’t care so much about why they’re not getting electricity. They just want the refrigerator and the television working again. They want order and balance in the universe. They want someone to tell them the answer they want to hear.
Which is why, 16 years old or not, Luke was exactly the right person to be taking Harrison, New York’s phone calls that week. He really did understand the frustration. He knew exactly how it felt to want answers … and not be getting them.
And like so many others, impacted by a storm, he simply wasn’t willing to take “no” for an answer.
As far back as he can remember, he’s been listening to his dad talk about current events, and what he heard eventually set him to reading columnists and listening to conservative podcasts. As years passed, and civics and social studies classes accumulated, he found he was accruing enough information to tell when his teachers were giving him the straight scoop about history and events — local, state, and federal — and when they were selling their own political perceptions.
Luke wasn’t above questioning his peers — or, sometimes, even his instructors — if he thought their ideas a little squishy. (His sixth-grade teacher sparked a lively discussion when she called Ronald Reagan a “horrible president.”) And, as he moved into high school, he began to understand just how much those interactions and discussions meant to him.
“This is what I’m supposed to do — my calling. And I intend to see it through.”—Luke Wong
“I always found it interesting,” he says, “just debate and speaking in general.” Looking to his future, “I knew what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to go into engineering, [or] become a doctor. Those weren’t things that really appealed to me. I realized, ‘Hey, [public service] is something I could have a future in. This is what I’m supposed to do — my calling.’ And I intend to see it through.”
Luke’s political passions really crystallized when he talked his father into taking him, halfway through his freshman year, to the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland. A major draw for conservative leaders, legislators, and activists from across the country, the annual gathering offered a chance for Luke to immerse himself in the political atmosphere — listening to speeches, meeting fellow enthusiasts, getting his picture taken with some of his heroes.
“It was his idea,” says his father, Tai, a precious metals trader. “I was like, ‘Wow, okay, I’ve got to take a couple of days off and go to this thing.’” But he could see Luke’s fervor growing. “Someone said to me that what you want to provide for your children are experiences. And this is something that he’s really interested in … something that I think is worthwhile.” He could also see his son dreaming of the future — and being willing to work for the dreams.
“You want to find something that you want to do,” Tai says, “something that lets you sort of be yourself. That’s important.” Through his family and their local Southern Baptist church, Tai has seen Luke develop and strengthen his grasp of “what is right and wrong … and I think that drives his passion, in terms of being awake to important issues of the day that a lot of kids don’t get.”
“He’s really, really well-informed. And that’s effort. You don’t get that without work.”
Mingling happily at CPAC, Luke heard from another conservative student about Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a national organization for college, high school, and middle school students interested in discussing and promoting conservative ideas on campus. Affiliated with Young America’s Foundation, the group was created in 1960 by William F. Buckley Jr. with the goal of instilling a conservative perspective in the younger generation.
Intrigued, Luke introduced himself to Kyle Ferrebee, a young YAF representative, who told him how he could launch a chapter of the organization on his own. Luke resolved to go back to Harrison High School and do just that. After all, other than his classes, his church activities, his involvement with the school swimming and cross-country teams, teaching himself Korean, and co-editing the campus newspaper, his time was largely his own.
It had not escaped Luke’s notice that none of the existing clubs on the Harrison campus discussed political topics from a conservative perspective. Which was not to say that his fellow students or teachers were apolitical. Luke perceives a strong leftist bent among many of both, and for all the animated conversations he’d been a part of, in and out of the classroom, he knew his conservative convictions set him apart.
“I have kind of gone against the grain a little bit,” he says.
Talking up the idea of YAF with his peers, he drew mixed reactions. “They said, ‘This is a pretty cool thing — you should try to get it started,’” he remembers. Then, in the next breath, “I don’t know if the administration is going to go for it. This is something I’d join, but I don’t want to put my name down. It’s too controversial.”
“They’re scared of being retaliated against,” Luke says, “either by other students or by the administration.” He also wonders if they’re thinking how their participation might look on a college application.
Later, trying to recruit a faculty sponsor for the club, Luke would find that teachers shared those students’ concerns. One candidly told him, “I know YAF. It’s a great organization. I would love this … but I’m scared of losing my job.”
Fear, Luke began to realize, was something in the air all around him at Harrison High.
Luke soon learned that the best-kept secret at Harrison was how to start a new club on campus. “I remember asking six different people, all of whom had formed clubs in the last few years, ‘Is there a process? A form?’ No. I checked the official website. No.” All anyone would tell him is, “You have to talk to the assistant principal.”
The assistant principal, as it turned out, had a busy spring. Luke asked to meet with her in April, shortly after he got back from the CPAC event, but she didn’t call him in until June, at the very end of the school year. Even then, it was a pretty short conversation.
Luke told her of his desire to launch a YAF club. She told him no.
What she wouldn’t tell him, exactly, was why. Even in the months to come, as Luke continued to politely pester her for a valid reason, she never came up with a consistent one.
“I got a whole bunch of different arguments,” Luke says, “none of which really made sense. Sometimes, I just didn’t get an answer. It was very confusing.”
The assistant principal said she didn’t like the idea of a club that was part of a national organization. Luke pointed out that one of the biggest clubs on campus, DECA — a group that encourages young entrepreneurs — was part of a global organization.
She worried that a conservative club would not be open to all students. Luke assured her that every student would be welcome — though only students who agreed with YAF’s principles could serve as officers.
She insisted that Harrison didn’t support clubs that stood for one particular political candidate or ideology. Luke understood the part about candidates, but thought it strange that a school so dominated by people of one political bent would not allow students one forum for hearing more conservative views. If anything, he hoped to bring more balance to what Harrison students were learning about politics.
The more the assistant principal seemed to grasp for new reasons to block a YAF club, the more Luke began to wonder if blocking it was really her idea. Was she trying to enforce a policy — official or off-the-record — from district officials, or maybe the school board?
“A lot of stuff happens behind closed doors,” he shrugs. He decided if he couldn’t open some of those doors, perhaps YAF could.
By the time Luke contacted his old CPAC acquaintance Kyle Ferrebee for advice, Ferrebee had been promoted to executive director of YAF. Hearing what Luke was up against, there were things that surprised Ferrebee, and things that did not.
What did not especially surprise him was the attitude of the administrators. Of the 600 or so campuses that express interest in starting YAF chapters, only about 200 a year actually launch one. And one of the impediments is school administrators.
“Schools drag their feet,” Ferrebee says, explaining that, often enough, students don’t learn of YAF or embrace their own conservative principles until their last year or two of high school. By then, it’s a race against time. A club can’t attract members until it’s recognized, and can’t be recognized without official approval. Meanwhile, administrators know that, in a few months, the seniors pressing for the club’s genesis will be graduating. If the school stalls long enough, those most passionate about starting a conservative club will have moved on. Problem solved.
Given recent events in American politics, Ferrebee predicts, “a lot of institutions are going to be emboldened to violate students’ rights. And students are just afraid to ask questions when they know they have belligerent administrators.”
Which is why what did surprise him about Luke’s particular situation was … Luke himself.
“He is very, very determined,” says Ferrebee. “He stuck with it.” Most of the hundreds of YAF chapters Ferrebee works with face obstacles, he says, many of them “nowhere near as difficult as Luke’s. And they all go, ‘I don’t want to deal with it.’ They don’t want to stick with it. Luke sticks with it.”
“It takes a special person to start a student organization,” Ferrebee says. “Not everybody’s a leader. Sometimes people are just built to push, and they want to speak out and they want to organize. They’re a minority of people … and they usually are seniors.” That Luke started pressing his case as a freshman gave him one of his best advantages in the showdown: time.
He also had one other factor in his favor.
“Most [parents] are afraid for their student’s welfare. But when Mom and Dad say, ‘Hey, Son, Daughter — you can do this’ … it’s something we’d like to see more.”—Kyle Ferrebee, Executive Director, Young Americans for Freedom
“Luke’s dad, Tai, is very engaged, too,” Ferrebee says. “That’s unusual. That makes it so much easier. Most [parents] are afraid for their student’s welfare. But when Mom and Dad say, ‘Hey, Son, Daughter — you can do this’ … it’s something we’d like to see more.”
YAF has an audience of more than a million on Facebook, and hundreds of thousands more on YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. Once they put out the word on all channels about what Luke was up against, that news caused considerable commotion — online and on campus. But administrators still refused to budge on allowing the club.
So YAF suggested that Luke and his dad take a different tack and talk with Alliance Defending Freedom. Through its Center for Academic Freedom, ADF has successfully represented clients in several YAF-related cases. And like YAF, ADF attorneys have a solid grasp of what students are often up against in standing for Christian or conservative principles at their school.
“There’s a rising fear both from cancel culture and societal pressures just to avoid the conflict — shut ideas down that we don’t want to hear — instead of responding with better speech and better ideas.”—Caleb Dalton, ADF Legal Counsel
“There’s a fear of free speech on many campuses and by many administrators,” says ADF Legal Counsel Caleb Dalton. “It’s tied to cancel culture. It’s tied to the fact that freedom is inherently risky. If you have any type of freedom, it may be abused. You have free speech, and some people may say things that are untrue or hurtful. But instead of realizing that is the price of freedom — and the answer is more speech, not censorship — many retreat in fear.”
In some cases, Dalton says, that fear seems to be tied up with ignorance of First Amendment rights as they apply on public high school and university campuses; in other cases, it’s apparently motivated “by animus toward conservative values, by people who want to use their power to silence conservative voices.”
Still others just want to avoid controversy, Dalton says, “and that may be what happened here. They thought maybe they could just avoid the whole thing by telling Luke no, and it would all go away. But they ran up against somebody who was willing to stand up for his rights — and for everybody’s rights on campus — to enjoy equal access. What many don’t realize is that every civil rights movement has advanced only because of free speech.”
ADF’s first overture on Luke’s behalf was a formal letter to Harrison High officials, reminding them of the constitutional protections of freedom of speech and assembly, and the school’s obligation to approve or reject all proposed clubs according to one clear, fixed, published standard. “They can’t just willy-nilly decide, ‘We’re going to approve this club,’ or, ‘Tomorrow we’re not going to approve any more,’” Dalton says. “That’s not how the Constitution works.”
The school officials’ first response seemed promising: they pledged right away to recognize Luke’s club, review campus club policies, and revise and enforce those policies in accord with students’ constitutional rights. “Right away,” though, became a month. Then another. And another. Administrators kept coming up with new reasons to slow down the process.
The next step would reasonably be a lawsuit against the school — a big step, and one Luke and his family knew could have far-reaching implications.
“Our concern,” Tai says, “and it continues to be a concern, is: what kind of retaliation will he face?” A lukewarm recommendation … a school award missed … a lost chance to speak at graduation … a future subtly changed with a scholarship lost, an admission denied, an opportunity evaporated. And all of that quite possibly inflicted on Luke’s younger siblings, too, coming up behind him.
None of those are things you can prove, Tai says. All of them, as a parent, you wonder about. Is establishing a club that administrators don’t want worth any of that?
With the first legal demand letter sent, Tai realized, “you’ve placed your bets. You have to be ready. We made our decision based on, yes, there’s a risk, but the risk is worthwhile. Luke really wants to do this. And this is something we as parents have always said is important. We’ve got to stand up for what we believe in.”
“If I don’t do this, maybe nobody will ever do it.”—Luke Wong
“If I don’t do this,” Luke told his father, “maybe nobody will ever do it.” He thought of his friends who had said, “We really like the idea, we believe in you, but … we’re too scared to be part of this right now.” Luke’s parents, he noticed, didn’t say that. Neither did YAF. Or ADF.
“The only thing that could have possibly held me back was myself,” he says. “And I realized I shouldn’t pull myself back from doing this … because this is really important.”
In the end, the Wongs opted to send one more demand letter before filing a lawsuit. That one did the trick. School board members, it seemed, had their own apprehension: a fear of being sued. At its next meeting, the board approved the YAF club. Luke waited for the roof to cave in. To his amazement, it didn’t.
“After the news came out, the response was extremely positive, and I was pretty shocked. A lot of my teachers were just super happy for me. A lot of students felt the same way. I got tons of messages from kids, saying, ‘Hey, look, I don’t agree with you in terms of politics, but I really appreciate that you’re standing up for what you believe in.’” Local Facebook pages overflowed with support, too, from his Harrison neighbors, asking, “How can I support this kid?”
To be sure, some students hurried to denounce Luke, and — inevitably — call him “racist.” Some complained that now the school has no “far left” organization.
“Fine,” Luke told them. “Start one.” Thanks to Luke, there’s a precedent for that now.
Even school administrators have been pleasant, since the decision, a fact the Wongs appreciate.
“You have to pick a hill to fight on, and sometimes, it’s a privilege — you get to pick a hill that is really worthwhile.”—Tai Wong
“We never knew where all this would lead,” Tai says. “We never wanted to make it us against the school, against anybody specific in the school. It’s just conservatives against a system that’s monolithic, that’s arrayed against conservatism. A system that, if you don’t push, you don’t get anything. You have to pick a hill to fight on, and sometimes, it’s a privilege — you get to pick a hill that is really worthwhile.
“Hopefully, this will all work out. If Luke goes to a top school, that's great, but I know he will find his way. He’s found his passion.”
Two things Dalton — who, with his fellow ADF attorneys, has successfully handled so many cases like the Wongs’ — wishes more families understood as they face an education culture increasingly inhospitable to people of faith and conservative values:
“It’s not a matter of disrespecting authority; it’s actually a matter of upholding the governing authority of the land, which is the Constitution.”—Caleb Dalton, ADF Legal Counsel
“One, that they’re not alone,” he says. “And two, that standing up for their rights to equal access and free speech is noble — and it’s not just for them. It’s not a matter of disrespecting authority; it’s actually a matter of upholding the governing authority of the land, which is the Constitution. And that’s not something that’s just for them. It’s for everyone.
“They’re fighting for the freedom of all Americans … and it’s a noble cause.”
COVID restrictions meant that the first meeting of the Harrison High YAF Club, earlier this year, had to be held online. Thirteen students tuned in. Luke explained about the national organization, talked about conservatism, asked for questions. He emphasized free speech.
The second meeting concentrated on media bias; another discussed the sanctity of life. Slowly, attendance is growing.
“Even if I don’t wind up working directly for conservative causes, it’s something I hope to contribute to,” Luke says. “Because I think there’s a way back for us to kind of not hate each other. After seeing people who probably don’t agree with me on anything say, ‘Hey, I don’t agree with you, but I admire you for standing up for what you believe in’ … that’s really encouraging.”
“I think it gives us a future. And I hope to be a part of it.”