While many of us feel like prisoners to our cell phones (not to be confused with prisons you can buy for your cell phone or companies that appear to specialize in inmate cell phone usage), what none of us want are prisoners working on our cell phones (or landlines).

During 2009 negotiations with Southern New England Telephone Company (AT&T) in Connecticut the Communications Workers of America union distributed t-shirts to members to publicize the disputes between the union and AT&T during contract negotiations. The shirts on the front included language that stated: “INMATE #” with a black box on the front, and on the back, vertical stripes and bars that surrounded the message “PRISONER OF AT&T.” Union members who received and wore these shirts included customer-facing employees who performed service calls to customers’ homes or in customers’ neighborhoods. AT&T directed all customer-facing employees to not wear the t-shirts and 183 employees failed to comply with the instructions receiving one-day suspensions.

The Communications Workers of America filed an unfair labor practice charge arguing that Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA was violated when they were prohibited from wearing the “Inmate” t-shirts. The NLRB agreed. On appeal, however, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the court vacated the NLRB’s decision and held that the NLRA rights of employees to display union messages may be resitricted if “special circumstances” justify a limitation—and that “special circumstances" were here present. The test, the Court stated, was not whether AT&T’s customers would have been alarmed by the t-shirts, but rather “whether AT&T could reasonably believe that the message may harm its relationship with its customers or its public image.