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Editorial | The Vento Complaint

Broken English

Whether you think Joey Vento's "speak English" sign was racist, silly or long overdue, it shouldn't take 18 months for Philadelphia's Human Relations Commission to decide.

Vento, owner of Geno's cheesesteaks, was hit with a civil-rights complaint in June 2006. But the HRC didn't hold a hearing on the case until Friday.

The show lasted more than


hours. And it's still not over. The commission took the matter "under advisement." Lawyers have another 60 days to file briefs.

If the HRC had a sign in its window, it would read: "This is America. When litigating, please speak s-l-o-w-l-y."

Allowing the saga to drag on this long has diluted any moral authority the HRC had to tell Vento his sign was despicable.

The commission's chairman, the Rev. James Allen, filed the complaint himself, which creates the appearance of a "judge and jury" prosecution.

Paul Hummer, an attorney prosecuting the case, said the sign violated the city's Fair Practices Ordinance, which prohibits places of public accommodation from withholding services based on race, color or ancestry.

That's an important principle to defend, if there were a victim in this case. But nobody has come forward to claim that he or she was denied the right to purchase an artery-clogging sandwich due to an inability to say "cheez wit" in English.

Granted, the commission's priority is to mediate disputes, not levy fines for discrimination. But the slow pace of "justice" has resulted in giving Vento about 15 months of fame, rather than 15 minutes. That's more attention than his obnoxious sign deserves - with still no resolution.

The HRC has done important work in supporting immigrants and finding common ground. But this time it looks like the commission is sponsoring a glorified dog-and-pony show that is teaching the public nothing.