Yann Hicks isn’t landing many Twitter “likes” from the MTA.
The veteran train operator is facing a suspension for allegedly violating a New York City Transit safety rule that bans the use of phones while driving — to snap photos of subway homelessness that he posts to Twitter.
But Hicks insists he doesn’t take photos or tweet while on duty and said his actions are in line with a slogan familiar to subway riders.
“If I see something, I say something,” Hicks, 55, told THE CITY. “I’m blowing the whistle.”
Throughout much of the pandemic, Hicks has been tweeting photos of homeless people in the subway system and of carts that were banned from trains after a March 27 fire on a No. 2 train that ended with a motorman’s death.
Some of the photos that he posts to Twitter, he said, have been sent to him by fellow transit workers.
He often tags officials from the MTA and Transport Workers Union Local 100, along with reporters and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to flag what he says are hazards to riders and transit workers.
“I ain’t trying to rattle nobody’s cage here,” he said. “I’m just trying to deal in facts.”
The MTA contends Hicks broke safety rules.
“Transit employees in critical frontline operating positions are not permitted to use phones while on duty,” said Andrei Berman, an MTA spokesperson. “This policy is informed by safety concerns.”
Hicks is also accused of running afoul of New York City Transit standards on social media use for posting “adverse criticism of the NYPD and NYCT” on Twitter, according to the notice of violation he received.
Speech Rights Limited
First Amendment experts said public employees do not surrender their free speech rights while on the job, but conceded protections can be pretty narrow.
“Even if you are speaking on a matter of public concern, if it’s disruptive to the workplace, that can be punished,” said Andrew Celli, a partner with Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel in Midtown. “There is no protection for that kind of speech.”
Eric Loegel, a vice president with TWU 100, said the union plans to “mount a very strong defense for Mr. Hicks.”
“Transit may disagree with the means, with the way he went about it,” Loegel told THE CITY. “But fundamentally, he was trying to call attention to something he feels is unsafe.”
Hicks said he ramped up his Twitter presence last spring as the pandemic began taking a heavy toll on transit workers who were subjected to unruly riders on trains.
“I’m a shop steward and this is what we do, we protect our members,” he said. “I want to work in an orderly subway, I want to ride in an orderly subway and I want the transit police to do their job.”
Hicks has just over two dozen followers on Twitter and said he restricted access to his tweets when he learned of his potential punishment earlier this month. He has worked 15 years at the MTA in a transit career that’s lasted more than three decades, including a stint as a bus driver in Seattle.
“I’m not trying to win a popularity contest or be a reality star,” he said. “I’m just trying to get the message across.”
‘No Police Anywhere’
David Hudson, a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute in Washington, said the rights of a public employee to speak on a matter of public concern have to be weighed against a public employer’s efficiency interests.
“This is happening all over — to police officers, teachers, firefighters,” said Hudson, a professor at the Belmont University College of Law. “They are still citizens who should be able to voice their opinions.”
But Hicks has been doing less of that lately. In October, he limited his photos on Twitter to two snapshots of men next to carts at the Cortlandt Street stop along the R and W lines in Lower Manhattan.
“Man WEARING NO MASK and no police anywhere,” he tweeted Oct. 6.
“If I called in everything I see, I would be on the radio all day long,” Hicks said. “And that would really torment them.”