Ruling: “Speak English” sign at cheesesteak shop not discriminatory
A city agency yesterday dismissed a discrimination complaint against Geno’s Steaks for its speak-English sign, halting a case that thrust shop owner Joey Vento into the national spotlight of the contentious immigration debate.
A split three-member panel of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations ruled that a sign in the South Philadelphia cheesesteak shop did not convey a message that service would be refused to non-English speakers.
“The bottom line is that I didn’t do anything wrong,” said Vento, 68, who maintained that the sign was a political statement and that no customers were ever turned away. “It’s a good victory.”
Had the commission ruled against Geno’s, it could have imposed fines and have moved to revoke Vento’s business license.
The case, filed 21 months ago, consumed hundreds of hours of legal time and was the subject of a seven-hour hearing in December. It attracted national attention to Vento and his sign: “This is America. When ordering, please speak English.”
The millionaire businessman said the commission’s action was an attempt to infringe on his freedom of speech – he refused to remove the sign, and put a second one on the bumper of his orange Hummer. Some commentators and Web sites portrayed Vento as the heroic victim of an overreaching government’s attempt to impose political correctness.
Indeed, while branding the commission’s action “ridiculous,” Vento said he was grateful for the publicity.
“They made me famous throughout the world,” Vento said in an interview from his home in New Jersey. “I’m way ahead of the game. I became a hero. I’ve got to thank them for that.”
Shannon L. Goessling, executive director of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a public-interest law firm in Atlanta that championed Vento’s case, complained that the government spent a “tremendous amount of energy” to “silence” Vento and said that he would consider filing suit to recover the cost of his defense.
“If that’s what it takes to send a message to government, then that’s what it takes,” she said.
The Rev. James S. Allen Sr., the commission chairman who filed the original complaint in June 2006, said he still contends that the sign was discriminatory, “but I accept the opinion of the panel.” He said the full commission was unlikely to appeal the three-member panel’s decision.
Allen said the panel’s ruling “is an example of the fairness of the Commission on Human Relations. . . . Just because we bring a case, it does not necessarily mean it will come out in our favor.”
The commission’s ruling surprised Vento’s attorneys, who had complained that the commission, in judging a case brought by its own chairman, was effectively acting as prosecutor, judge and jury.
“I’m kind of impressed with the decision to buck the trend,” said Albert G. Weiss, Vento’s lawyer in Philadelphia. “It restores my confidence in them a little bit.”
Commissioners Roxanne E. Covington and Burt Siegel wrote the majority opinion.
Joseph J. Centeno, a lawyer who chaired the panel, dissented and said the commission had met its burden to prove discrimination, citing testimony from several witnesses at the December hearing that they felt intimidated and unwelcomed by the sign’s message.
One witness, University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Camille Z. Charles, likened the “speak English” signs to “whites only” signs from the Jim Crow era.
But Vento’s sign also struck a chord among Americans apprehensive over the influx of immigrants, and he was flooded with supportive messages from across the country. “Right now, outside of the war, this is a very hot topic,” he said.
Yesterday, Vento took phone calls from like-minded talk-show radio hosts who wanted him to make appearances, and from Lou Barletta, the Hazleton, Pa., mayor who wants to crack down on illegal immigration and is running for Congress.
“I woke up America, so to speak,” said Vento.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I feel that I must reveal something about myself before beginning this rant: I am a Geno’s lover. In the famous battle of the South Philly cheesesteak emporiums, I prefer the cleanliness of Geno’s to the dirty grills at Pat’s. Of course, that does not mean I won’t cross the street for cheese fries or because the line is shorter. It just means I prefer Geno’s. As an alien resident, living in the Silicon Valley, I would be damned happy with even something as lousy as a Steve’s Prince of Steaks sandwich, so I guess my vote doesn’t really much count. As usual, though, my stomach has gotten in the way of a perfectly good rant.
I’ve spoken to Joe Vento on numerous occasions. This does not make me a braggert or FOJ. It simply means he leaned out his little store window and yelled “wit?” in my face a few times. From these in-depth intellectual conversations, I can say with absolutely no authority whatsoever that he is a likeable enough guy. I don’t think his sign is meant to be mean-spirited. It’s not politically-correct, but I don’t think he’s a bigot, per se. I think he’s exhausted.
What do I mean by “exhausted”? Basically, it’s reactionary behavior that stems from the shift in some populations from “old neighborhood families” to “new immigrants”. The sociological impact of mass influx of “new” into an established neighhood culture has an affect upon the job market, education, housing demand, property values, and much more. It’s a problem of balance and it’s a problem of fear. Locals fear losing their own unique culture and newbies fear assimilation into some new foreign society which may not help preserve their own ways. This can lead to things like “exhaustion” — the feeling of being overwhelmed and trying to preserve what’s left of the old established culture in any way possible.
Don’t get me wrong; I live in an extremely diverse area myself and I feel lucky to be exposed to so many different cultures and people. Many of my friends grew up in other countries and with different cultural & social traditions. Learning from them is often very eye-opening and impacts my view of the world. In other words, I’m not espousing racism, segregation, or other such nonsense, so don’t get it twisted, tough guy.
But I have to say I was a little surprised on Saturday when I noticed a McDonald’s ad on a bus that described the “Big Breakfast” (eggs, sausage, etc) in Hindi. Not only is this a tip of the hat to our growing Indian community which now calls California its home, but it also tells me that we’re actively recruiting those largely vegetarian immigants into the “American lifestyle” of eating fatty, greasy meats. It’s forced integration at lightening speed. Drop the chopsticks and stop wearing your sari! Talk English and join us at the fast food table! It’s cultural re-structuring with just a teensy bit of anger and resentment thrown in to keep it all interesting for the purposes of sensationalism.
And, come to think of it, isn’t that “fast-forward homogenization” what Joe Vento is trying to do as well in his own misguided fashion? BTW, Joe, “wit” is not really considered English. Maybe the sign should say “This is Geno’s. When ordering, tawk cheesesteak.” Just a suggestion…
Post-Script: I just realized that this is my second immigration-themed posting in a week. Let me make my position very clear on this point: I am not in favor of illegal immigration, though I am cool with legalized immigration and visa-based extended visits. Supporting illegal immigration is a slap in the face to the hard-working people who go through the very arduous process of legally working and living in our nation. It’s also a burden upon our overall welfare, healthcare, & social systems. When in doubt about my intent or beliefs, just ask yourself if it’s against the Ten Commandments [or my recommended additions about stupid-ass haters & people without any humor]. If it means doing something wrong or hate-based, you can probably guess I don’t support it. Out!