THE CITY'S Commission on Human Relations says it will take about two months to decide whether cheesesteak entrepreneur Joey Vento discriminates against customers who don't speak English.
Two months? Two minutes would be more like it.
This case is weak where it needs to be strong. There's no proof anyone was denied service because he failed to adhere to the sign on Vento's steak-shop window: "This is America. When ordering, please speak English."
Say what you will about the sign. We see it as a boorish attempt to intimidate the influx of immigrants while reassuring English-speaking Americans that we still dominate around these parts. At least for now.
But it's really just a matter of free speech.
The commission held a six-hour hearing on Friday to see whether the sign violated the city's Fair Practices Ordinances.
The commission says Vento is discriminating on the basis of national origin or ancestry. Vento says the sign is protected by his First Amendment rights - and encourages faster service.
But as we said in June 2006, until someone is refused service because of the language problem, where is the line? No one stepped forth to offer any evidence that it had been crossed. The commission, in trying to do good, has created a phony issue - and a folk hero.
Vento, grandson of Italian immigrants, has become the poster boy for freedom of speech advocates and anti-immigration groups. He's been interviewed on television, radio and in newspapers. He's internationally known. Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, who has changed his views on illegal immigrants over the years, recently visited the shop (as have dozen of celebrities over the years).
Could things get any better for Joey Vento?
Well, perhaps his cheesesteaks. But, hey, that's all a matter of taste. And Vento is first and foremost a businessman: As has he testified, it would be foolish for him to turn down anyone's money.
But South Philadelphia is slowly losing its strong Italian heritage. The number of foreign-born residents near Geno's has tripled in 20 years, a professor testified. Who knows: In another 20, bilingual customers may be more commonplace. And Joey Vento's sign will be nothing more than a relic from days gone by. *