Univision, the country's largest Spanish language network, is refusing to run a television ad sponsored by the Center for Policy Reform (a 501(c)(4) affiliate of the non-profit Drug Policy Alliance) featuring family members of New Yorkers serving sentences under the state's controversial Rockefeller drug laws - a move critics say is caving to Governor George Pataki's attempt to squelch free speech. Univision's decision follows a letter sent to the station last Thursday by the Governor's Director of Criminal Justice, Chauncey Parker, requesting that the 30 second spot be taken of the air. Parker alleged that the ad was intentionally false and misleading, calling it "blatantly untruthful."
Though the Alliance disputed the alleged inaccuracies, they hurriedly and at great expense changed those elements of the ad that could potentially be misunderstood as minor errors. Upon receipt of the revised ad, however, Univision pointed to one statement -"thousands of New Yorkers have a family member behind bars for mandatory sentences", and refused to run it until "thousands" was changed to "hundreds", making it consistent with the Governor's interpretation of the ad.
According to the State Department of Corrections, there are over 19,000 drug offenders in New York state prisons, making it impossible that only "hundreds" of New Yorkers have family members incarcerated under these laws. A recent report by Human Rights Watch estimated that 23,537 children currently have parents in New York state prisons for drug offenses.
"The Governor continues to tell Latino and black New Yorkers that he is for real reform. Why then does he keep trying to silence those who advocate for it?" said Deborah Small, the Director of Public Policy at Drug Policy Alliance. "We agree with the family members of those serving the longest sentences under these laws who last week refused to accept the reform package offered by the Governor because it would not benefit a significant number of drug offenders."
In a letter responding to Univision's initial decision to stop running the ad, Small wrote:
"We believe your decision to accede to this request from the Executive was both unfortunate and unnecessary. We assert and maintain our constitutionally protected First Amendment right to advocate on the issue of Rockefeller drug law reform free of inappropriate government interference."
The Governor has been criticized recently for not fulfilling his promise of real reform of the state's harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Reform advocates believe that this recent move shows the Governor's particular concern about the Latino community, whose vote is potentially vital to his reelection in November.
"There is nothing more important to our democratic form of government than the open exchange of ideas," stated Assemblyman Peter M. Rivera, Chairman of the New York State Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force. "The debate over the reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and any debate on policy issues impacting our communities should not be interfered with."