A city agency today 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.