Professor sues GW, top administrators for UPD booting him from classroom

The tenured professor the University has been trying to fire is suing GW and two top administrators for incidents in fall 2005 in which police barred him from campus.

The defendants – Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman and Engineering School Dean Timothy Tong – and attorneys representing the University received the civil complaint Wednesday. The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in August, demands $1 million for false arrest and imprisonment as well as a false light claim, according to court documents.

Lehman and Tong began proceedings in September 2005 to revoke the tenure of Saha, who has been teaching at GW since 1986. The University claims the professor engaged in “persistent neglect of professional responsibilities,” ranging from not submitting student evaluation or annual reports to not attending faculty meetings and avoiding communication with colleagues. Saha, an expert in communications and information theory, is appealing the faculty hearing panel’s July 2006 decision, which recommended revoking his tenure.

Saha wants the University to be punished for suspending him by force, when University Police Department officers were used to remove him from a class he was teaching and from his office.

“Professor Saha suffered emotional distress and damages to his reputation, embarrassment and humiliation,” his civil complaint states. “(The) defendants acted willfully, wantonly, maliciously and in reckless disregard of (the) plaintiff’s rights and reputation.”

At least four UPD officers came into Saha’s class meeting the night of Sept. 1, 2005, and escorted the professor out of the classroom and the building, according to court documents. An officer told Saha he was not supposed to teach because he was suspended, but Saha stated in his civil complaint that he had twice confirmed with his department that he was scheduled to teach the class. Saha had been teaching the Communications Theory course since 1987.

The following day, three UPD officers went to Saha’s office, taking his office key and serving him with a bar notice, which forbade the professor from being on campus, according to court documents. While being escorted by UPD out of the building and to his car, Saha said colleagues, engineering staff and former students watched the incident.

“When you see somebody escorted out of a classroom and out of a university building by four policemen, our argument is that places him in the light that he’s done something wrong,” Saha’s attorney, John F. Karl Jr., said in a telephone interview Friday. “If you see somebody surrounded by four police officers, what do you think? I think intuitively you think the person has done something wrong.”

In documents presented to the faculty hearing panel reviewing Saha’s tenure, Karl has argued his client is free from professional wrongdoing.

Karl said Saha was never informed of his suspension from teaching before the class and that University officials could have discussed the situation before escalating it to a police action. He added that Lehman and Tong are in the suit because they were the ones who made the decision to have Saha suspended and barred from campus.

“They could have told him. They could’ve told him before he was removed from the classroom,” Karl said.

The first count of the lawsuit argues that Saha was deprived of rights guaranteed to him by a federal statute when UPD was used to bar him from his classroom and office. Karl said that the officers who “paraded” his client out of the buildings were state actors under D.C. law, which connects the situation to a civil rights law. Badged UPD officers are commissioned as special police officers by the Metropolitan Police Department, UPD Chief Dolores Stafford has previously told The Hatchet.

The second count states that the defendants “caused the false arrest and imprisonment” of Saha when he was removed from his classroom Sept. 1. Karl said Saha was never handcuffed or formally arrested but that the charge stems from his being “detained and restrained from teaching his class.”

The third and final count accuses Lehman, Tong and the University of placing Saha in a false light by UPD officers publicly escorting him away from his classroom and office.

GW law professor Daniel Solove said false light claims involve “a widespread disclosure … (which) conveys a false impression of a person.” The professor, who has written a book on privacy law, said the “humiliating or deeply discrediting” incidents cause the plaintiff embarrassment.

The suit demands $500,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages from the defendants, according to the complaint that was filed Aug. 24 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Karl said he does not expect court proceedings to take place until the beginning of next year.

Karl said he does not let his clients speak to the press and would not provide contact information for Saha. The professor did not return a voicemail message.

University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Stafford, Lehman and GW attorneys declined to answer questions about Saha. Tong has not returned several phone calls from The Hatchet.

Media Relations Director Tracy Schario said administrators do not comment on the details of pending litigation or personnel matters, but said that the University has acted properly.

“(T)he University denies professor Saha’s allegations that he was treated wrongfully,” Schario wrote in an e-mail last week. “Professor Saha’s statements to the press are intended to divert attention from the real issues of what the Faculty Senate hearing panel found to be his ‘egregious misconduct.'”

In memory of Alfred Ceasar, 1914-2006

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