NBC has apologized to a Hispanic group angered by the portrayal of Puerto Ricans in Wednesday's episode of "Law & Order," a mea culpa that has drawn an angry counter-response from the program's producer.

The Washington-based National Puerto Rican Coalition complained about the episode, "Sunday in the Park With Jorge," before it aired this week, but was told by NBC officials that it met the network's standards. After meeting with the organization on Thursday, however, NBC backed down, issuing a public apology and vowing never to rerun the episode.

That drew the wrath of "Law & Order" producer Dick Wolf yesterday. "The bedrock of American democracy is free speech and lack of censorship," Wolf said in a statement. "The network has caved in to the demands of a special interest group and I am extremely disappointed with this decision, about which I was not consulted, as I think it sets an extremely dangerous precedent."

The episode revolved around New York's annual Puerto Rican Day parade. The program fictionalized several real incidents that followed last year's parade, including the harassment and intimidation of female passersby. The program took matters further, with a plot centering on the fictitious killing of a woman after the parade.

Manuel Mirabal, president of the National Puerto Rican Coalition, said in an interview that the show "made a point of casting Puerto Ricans in a negative light. . . . There was no effort to explain that the people involved in the [actual incidents] were not people connected to the parade. The show clearly gave the impression that criminal and antisocial behavior were going on throughout the parade."

NBC was the target of similar complaints by Mirabal's group and others after a 1998 "Seinfeld" episode in which Kramer accidentally sets the Puerto Rican flag ablaze during the parade, provoking a riot among parade marchers. NBC also apologized for that program.

NBC had been in discussions with Mirabal's group prior to the "Law & Order" airing, but opted to broadcast the episode with a disclaimer stating that the program was fiction.

Late Thursday, it issued an apology: "Over the past year, consulting with members of the coalition, we have worked to improve our procedures regarding sensitive programming issues, but we realize we still have further improvements to make and we are committed to do so."

NBC won't re-air the episode, said spokeswoman Kassie Canter, but she said it could reappear in syndicated reruns, over which NBC has no control.

In his dissenting statement, Wolf said, " 'Law & Order' has been ripped from the headlines for 240 episodes. Over the past 11 years, the series has offended the sensitivities of a variety of special interest groups, including, but not limited to Jews, Catholics, Protestants, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Aryans, Gays and Lesbians, Italians, Russians, Greeks, Conservatives, Liberals, Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Advocates, and the list goes on ad nauseam. The show reflects real life."

The station that carries "Law & Order" in New York is WNBC, NBC's flagship station, which has also carried live coverage of the actual parade, both in 1998 and last year.

"Law & Order" has been averaging 17.4 million viewers per week this season, ranking it 13th among all series programs.

NBC apologized after a Puerto Rican group objected to portrayals in this week's "Law & Order" episode.