06/17/2014 01:35 EDT | Updated 08/17/2014 05:59 EDT

Alberta Appeal Court upholds union contempt, tosses speech restriction

EDMONTON - Alberta's highest court has upheld a ruling that the province's civil service union was in contempt for not obeying labour board directives during an illegal strike by prison guards.

But the Court of Appeal also says a previous ruling went too far when it ordered the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees to stop supporting the guards and tell them to go back to work.

"It would be difficult to conclude that the circumstances were so serious and dangerous as to justify limiting the right to freedom of expression," says the Appeal Court ruling.

In April 2013, several guards walked off the job over safety concerns at Edmonton's new remand centre and were soon joined by guards at several other jails. The Labour Relations Board quickly ordered them back to work. It said the union should not only tell the guards about that order, but advise them to obey it as well.

Those directives were filed in court and became court orders. A judge ruled that the union disobeyed those orders in comments to media and on its website.

"The tenor of the leadership's statements was 'utter defiance,'" says the Appeal Court's summary of the judge's comments.

The initial judge found the union guilty of civil contempt and imposed restrictions on what it could and couldn't say.

Union leaders were no longer allowed to express solidarity with striking guards or publish their version of strike-related news. In addition, the union was ordered to publish a "clear and unambiguous" directive on its website that members should return to work.

The Appeal Court found that went to far. It noted that while the strike was short-lived, the court order was permanent. It also ruled there was no evidence the speech restrictions would get the workers back on the job.

"Lesser measures were called for than the measures ordered."

Union president Guy Smith said the contempt finding may be appealed to the Supreme Court. But he welcomed removal of the speech restrictions.

"We're very pleased that the court recognized the original court decision overstepped its bounds and basically gagged AUPE and its officers," he said. "When you take away an organization's rights to speak on behalf of its members, I think that should be concerning to all Albertans and Canadians."

Smith said the union has paid about $350,000 in fines as a result of the strike.

Progress on the original issues that led to the walkout has been slow, but real, he added.

"There's been some improvement. There seems to be a bit more commitment."

Smith said he has no regrets about the union's stance.

"It's important to recognize we're trying to rebuild a very broken relationship with the government, and that (strike) was one of the reasons it was broken. For that relationship to be rebuilt, there has to be some resolution to this and we need to move on and deal with the real issues of health and safety in worksites."