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Common sense rules in AT&T shirt slamming public image suit

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There is an old joke about a message in a fortune cookie that says, “Help, I’m being held a prisoner in a fortune cookie factory.”

Well, the union for New Haven, Connecticut-based Southern New England Telephone Co. took that concept and brought it up a notch, though neither the phone company nor an appeals court were left laughing.

According to last week’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the Communications Workers of America union had distributed special t-shirts to its workers, and encouraged them to wear on two occasions. The front of the shirts read Inmate and Prisoner of AT$T on the back.

AT&T protested that these shirts would hurt its relationship with its customers, and a three-judge unanimously agreed in Southern New England Telephone Co. v. National Labor Relations Board, Communication Workers of America, AFL-CIO.

“Common sense sometimes matters in resolving legal disputes. This case is a good example,” said the court, in overturning an NLRB ruling in the case.

The National Labor Relation Act protects employees’ right to wear union apparel at work. But there is a “special circumstances” exception to that general rule that says a company can prohibit its employees from displaying message on the job that it believes may harm its relationship with its customers, and this case falls within it, said the appeals court

“It simply was reasonable for AT&T to believe that the ‘Inmate/Prisoner’ shirts may harm AT&&T’s relationship with its customers or its public image” and the company lawfully prohibited its employees from wearing the shirt, the court said.