THEY SAY YOU can't fight City Hall, but last Friday Joey Vento stood tall (at 5-foot-5) in the center ring of the circus to answer a discrimination complaint filed against him by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.

Vento's been a handy punching bag for the press. Local editorial writers and columnists have vilified him as a racist, a nativist, a know-nothing, a do-badder, because of his (now world-famous) 4-by-9-inch sign at the window of his Geno's Steaks that reads: "This is America. When Ordering, Please Speak English." Some believe that is hate speech.

For some reason (hate, perhaps?) the 6 1/2 -hour hearing was conducted entirely in English, a clear slap in the face to the Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander and Esperanto communities.

The hearing took place in the Quaker Arch Street Meeting House at 4th and Arch - 4.13 miles from 2917 Edgemont St. in Port Richmond where a few days earlier a home rented by an African-American couple had been broken into and smeared with vile, racist, threatening slogans by numbnut goons.

If you think I'm hinting at a big difference between real hate and imagined hate, give yourself a gold star.

In his designer-print gray T-shirt, the 68-year-old Vento was seated in the kangaroo court. I use that term because the man who signed the discrimination complaint was Commission Chair Rev. James Allen. How would you like to be judged by a commission whose chief made the complaint against you?

The commission itself bringing a charge has happened only once before in the last 20 years, said Allen. Why is Vento so special?

Allen signed the complaint because the commission - which enforces laws against discrimination - could find no one to testify being denied service for linguistic impropriety at Geno's, which served 780,000 people last year. Both sides agreed no one has ever been denied service because they no speaka da English.

Geno's actions aren't on trial, it's the wording of the sign, which commission attorney Paul M. Hummer said was (constitutionally protected) political speech when used at a rally, but discriminatory when glued to Geno's window. Because it is near a sign giving management the right to refuse service to anyone, it's an "implied threat," Hummer said. Both signs are near a sign quoting President Teddy Roosevelt as saying to be an American, you must speak English. Is that discriminatory?

The commission called five witnesses and it was pitiful and painful to hear them, a Cult of Victimhood, trying to equate "Please Order in English" to "Whites Only" signs in the Jim Crow South, or "No Spanish or Mexicans" signs of an earlier era.

The Cult called Vento's sign "a factor of intimidation," "insensitive," "offensive," "humiliating." Cult members had two things in common: They spoke their opinions, and they did so in English.

I was disappointed the audience of about 100 did not contain the "hate groups" promised by the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition - unless PICC meant the 40 listeners bussed in with WPHT/1210-AM radio host Dom Giordano.

PICC executive director Regan Cooper told me Vento uses the sign "as a platform to spread anti-immigrant myths and attack the Mexican community."

Two things. First, that's not what he's charged with. Second, the limelight-loving Vento, who cracks syntax like walnuts, will be the first to tell you he's no diplomat. When speaking, he sometimes neglects to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. PICC does the same thing.

Hummer says the fact that no one actually was denied service is beside the point. The "crime" is in the language.

If, like me, you have to ask, "Is this really a crime?," chances are it's not.

I know some people hunger to feel offended and humiliated by Vento's sign.

I know 780,000 Geno's patrons last year did not.

If Vento's sign is hate speech, so is "no shirt, no shoes, no service."

It discriminates, too. *

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