A federal judge Monday evening ordered Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to follow the lead of what governors, mayors and county executives across the United States routinely offer every day: the prominent use of a sign language interpreter during his daily Covid press briefings so tens of thousands of deaf New Yorkers can keep up to date on the latest coronavirus updates from Albany.
The Cuomo administration had pushed back against a lawsuit by Disability Rights New York, an advocacy group that last month sued the Democratic governor to try to force him to share the broadcast frame with an American Sign Language interpreter during his coronavirus press briefings.
The group first pressed back in March to make the briefings more accessible – via broadcast TV – to deaf New Yorkers by including an interpreter. At first, the administration provided closed captioning of the briefings; such captioning, however, can be riddled with errors when done on a live basis and did nothing for deaf people who do not speak English.
Next, the administration tapped a sign language interpreter, but, unlike other governors, Cuomo did not include the interpreters in the state-provided TV signal that is distributed to local, state and national broadcasters each day during his Covid briefings.
Instead, the signal was offered via a separate link on the internet; advocates for deaf people called that inadequate, in part, because of spotty broadband service in many parts of New York and because the interpreter broadcasts were not archived for people to watch them if they missed the live event.
U.S. District Court Judge Valerie Caproni in Manhattan Monday evening granted the advocacy group a preliminary injunction in its case against Cuomo and ordered him to immediately commence “in-frame” broadcasts of his Covid briefings with a sign language interpreter.
Caproni is the judge who presided over the Buffalo Billion corruption trials involving former top government and political advisers to Cuomo over the awarding of more than $1 billion in government development deals from Buffalo to Syracuse.
In a sharply worded, 14-page decision that was released Tuesday, Caproni slammed Cuomo’s position on the matter, saying the plaintiffs who brought the case have protections afforded them through the Americans with Disabilities Act and a section of the federal Rehabilitation Act.
In a footnote to her decision, the judge said the pandemic has exposed “inarguable” evidence that many people in New York State and elsewhere do not have access to broadband internet services, or they cannot afford it.
Caproni said Cuomo legal paper’s suggestions that the plaintiffs in the case are “merely” choosing not to take advantage of other ways to access the governor’s briefings is “unfounded, conclusory and cavalier.” She noted that 49 other governors provide in-frame sign language services during their tv broadcast Covid briefings. She granted the preliminary injunction – requiring Cuomo to expand the availability of sign language interpreters – because the plaintiffs had shown a “clear and substantial” likelihood of prevailing in their court case.
The judge noted that Cuomo did not explain why he resisted the plaintiffs pleas – in advance of a lawsuit – to provide the sign-language interpretation. “His position in this litigation comes down to his view that the law does not require it; he has done other things to accommodate the deaf, and therefore, he will not provide in-frame ASL interpretation. That dismissive attitude towards this segment of his constituency – beyond being unkind – runs counter to the law of the land as articulated” in two federal laws, the federal judge wrote today.
The judge said Cuomo’s communications decision cut some deaf people out of the loop in obtaining timely and important public health information. Without court intervention in the matter, she wrote that such people “will continue to be denied timely access to this critical information, leaving them less able to comply with current orders and advice, less able to prepare for the future and more anxious about current conditions and the future.’’
The judge ordered the sign language interpreter services to be expanded by Cuomo starting on May 13 unless the state provides a "detailed" affidavit stating why it cannot do so. The judge noted her order will not be burdensome or costly to New York, which has already been offering sign language services of Cuomo's briefings via the internet but not on his live tv broadcast signal.
The advocacy group, which brought the lawsuit with four deaf New Yorkers against Cuomo, hailed the Caproni ruling.
“We should not have been forced to go to court to ensure the safety of thousands of deaf New Yorkers," said Timothy Clune, the executive director of the organization.
The Cuomo administration Monday evening said it set up a dedicated internet stream that is viewed by thousands of people daily. "The decision is being reviewed by counsel,'' said Richard Azzopardi, a senior advisor to Cuomo.
A lawyer for Attorney General Letitia James, who represents Cuomo in the case, wrote the judge Monday evening to say that there are "technical issues" with being able to comply with her order on Tuesday, but that officials expect the court order to be followed starting Wednesday morning, according to court papers.