Hate speech or big misunderstanding?

Joseph Schulz, Managing Editor

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A Brown County Circuit Court judge recently ordered the release of public records investigating a UW Oshkosh English professor for possible gender identity discrimination.

A May 2017 student complaint alleged that associate English professor James “Duke” Pesta discriminated against them based on their political identity and used hate speech in class.

However, the university’s investigative report classified the complaint as harassment based on the student’s gender identity.

Pesta argues that the student took references made to literary works covered in class out of context due to poor attendance.

In September of the following year, Pesta filed an injunction in Brown County Circuit Court to prevent the release of public records related to the 2017 investigation. Pesta said he filed the injunction because the student made false allegations that are on his permanent record.

On Sept. 3, 2019, Circuit Court Judge Kendall Kelley denied Pesta’s injunction and ordered that a redacted version of the documents be released, which The Advance-Titan obtained through an open records request.

The student first reported Pesta’s behavior a few days into the semester to former English department chair Roberta Maguire in a Jan. 5, 2017 email.

In the email, the student said they have three majors and that since starting at UWO they never felt the need to report a professor before taking Pesta’s Classical and Medieval Literature course.

The student said Pesta tries to set up what he refers to as “free speech zones,” but “things have gone way too far,” as Pesta allegedly referred to students as “snowflakes” and “tight-ass liberals.”

Pesta repeatedly went on tangents in class telling students their education was biased toward liberals, he railed against the university, feminism, environmentalism and education, claiming that UWO seeks to “punish and criminalize” conservatism, the email said.

Pesta said he does believe students are receiving a liberally biased education, but added that he doesn’t bring his politics into the classroom.

“I don’t mind kids learning feminist ideology,” Pesta said. “I don’t mind kids learning Marxist ideology, but explain to me what that has necessarily to do with reading Shakespeare.”

The student’s email added that Pesta’s tangents weren’t limited to railing against the university, as he also used offensive language when talking about President Obama, claiming he “perverted the government” and that “the monkey is out of the bag.”

Pesta denies ever saying anything negative about President Obama.

The email said Pesta “creates a hostile environment where discourse is not the goal” and that “his own agenda is seriously clouding the learning environment.”

The student filed a formal complaint against Pesta to the Equal Opportunity, Equity & Affirmative Action office on May 10, 2017.

The complaint said Pesta used class time in English 392, a special topics course in fantasy and literature, to preach his political beliefs and added that he repeatedly used hate speech, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as speech expressing prejudice against a particular group on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation.

Pesta allegedly told the class that “Native Americans created their own demise because they placed their god in nature rather than in the heavens.”

The student said he also verbally attacked transgender people, allegedly telling the class that they aren’t real and that “girls are girls and boys are boys and there is nothing in between.”

Pesta said those comments were taken out of context, in discussions of J. R. R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’ works.
“We were reading two Christian writers,” Pesta said. “We were reading Tolkien and Lewis in that class and Tolkien and Lewis were espousing all sorts of Christian worldviews.”

Each class period, Pesta assigned a journal based on what was covered in class. The student used the journal to comment on Pesta’s rhetoric.

On one of the student’s journals Pesta wrote “see me.” The student met with Pesta after class and he asked if he was making the student uncomfortable. The student’s complaint said they lied and said no.

Allegedly, Pesta then explained that he gives students “an out” where they can drop the class at the beginning of the semester if they don’t like his content or teaching style, but the student said they wanted to read the assigned books.

The student expressed that they wished the class was more about the content in the books. Pesta got angry and said that if the student didn’t think he was talking about the books then they weren’t paying attention.

The next class period Pesta allegedly brought up suicide repeatedly and stated that it was “an easy way out.” Then he slammed the table and said, “if you think that I’m not talking about the novels right now listen up.”

The student reported feeling targeted the entire class period, because they “had told him these things in confidence” as part of a private conversation.

“Him bringing that into the lecture made me feel like he was targeting me and almost trying to force me out of the class,” the student’s May 10, 2017 complaint said. Soon after that class period the student called Maguire and dropped the class.

Pesta said the talk of suicide in the lecture was part of a discussion of the third book in C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy.

“In Lewis’s Christian worldview, the suicide of this particular character is a cop-out; it is a cowardly way to run away from his responsibilities,” he said.

He said he doesn’t remember slamming the table, but said he is very animated when teaching. Pesta added that the student skipped the majority of classes and dropped the class because they had skipped so much that they could no longer receive a passing grade.

Besides reporting the incident to Maguire and the Equal Opportunity, Equity & Affirmative Action Office, the student also reported Pesta’s behavior to LGBTQ+ Resource Center Director Liz Cannon and Dean of Students Art Munin.

Ultimately, the university found that Pesta did not harass or discriminate against the student, and that it’s likely he told the class “girls are girls and boys are boys.”

“Even though an individual may exercise poor personal judgement or otherwise act in a manner inconsistent with the intent of university policy, not every offensive, repugnant, or inappropriate act or incident constitutes discrimination or harassment,” the investigative report concluded.