A nursing union locked in contentious contract negotiations says Temple University Hospital is trying to infringe on the free-speech rights of the union and its members.

The Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP), which represents 1,500 nurses at Temple, said it had filed a complaint yesterday with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board claiming the hospital was demanding that a gag clause limiting public criticism of Temple or its managers be included in the new contract.

PASNAP threatened a three-day strike when its contract expired Sept. 30. However, bargaining continued and nurses have stayed on the job. The last session was about two weeks ago, and no new talks are scheduled.

Bill Cruice, PASNAP's executive director, said about 150 union members picketed yesterday during a ribbon-cutting for Temple University's new medical school building.

He said the proposed gag clause was "not only illegal but morally reprehensible." The union cannot legally be forced to negotiate that issue, which the hospital included in its "last, best offer," Cruice said.

According to the union, the proposal states: "The Association, its officers, agents, representatives and members shall not publicly criticize, ridicule or make any statement which disparages Temple, or any of its affiliates or any of their respective management officers or medical staff members." In the event of "defamation," the union would pay "damages" of $250,000.

Sandy Gomberg, the hospital's interim chief executive, said the union had "misrepresented" the intent of the "non-disparagement clause."

She said it was not meant to prevent an individual nurse from criticizing the hospital, but to keep union officials from harming the hospital's reputation. The hospital filed a defamation suit against the union in July regarding statements about Medicare funding.

"What we won't tolerate is the union, not our employees, making derogatory and defamatory statements about the hospital, individuals who work here, or the patient care we provide," she said.

The hospital believes it has the right to "suggest" the language and hopes the union will return to bargaining, Gomberg said.

Cruice said that, while private businesses can restrict employee speech, Temple University, as a state-related institution, is "actually subject to the Constitution."