Thanks to the paranoid political correctness of the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission and its acting executive director, Rachel Lawton, the print and alternative media have quickly exposed yet another attack by the sign police.
By now, most cheese steak lovers and other patriots have heard about the two signs Philadelphia Joey Vento posted at his Geno’s steak restaurant. They depict the stars and stripes and the head of a bald eagle, next to seven words: “This is AMERICA. WHEN ORDERING ‘SPEAK ENGLISH’.”
Ever alert to the sensitivities of South Philadelphia’s non-English speaking, cheese steak-seeking population, Lawson concluded that “[t]he sign discourages patronage by non-English speakers because of their national origin and/or ancestry.”
This insight was intended to invoke the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance section that prohibits “discrimination” in public accommodations on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, and gender identity—Lawson’s focus being on just two of the ten “no-no” categories: national origin and/or ancestry.
In other words, according to the Philadelphia public official charged with enforcing “anti-discrimination” laws, it is illegal “national origin” and/or “ancestry” discrimination to request that restaurant patrons—whom she admits do not speak English—order cheese steaks in the language of the United States (and South Philly).
There are several stories here: what Lawson’s beef with Geno’s reveals about the absurdly indefensible lengths to which the anti-discrimination zealots are willing to go; how the national publicity given the story has exposed those lengths and made Lawson and her commission look like the fools they are; that Joey Vento has become yet another symbol of the small entrepreneur beleaguered by petty bureaucrats; that he has a complete defense on the facts because he has not discriminated against anyone. (Even the zealots at the Human Relations Commission haven’t been able to turn up anyone—cross-dressers included—who have been refused a cheese steak at Geno’s. That would be a different case.)
But perhaps the most important aspect of the Geno’s story hasn’t received the attention it deserves. It is the arrogance of Lawson and her bunch in the face of Supreme Court decisions that will protect Joey’s signs and the messages they convey.
Joey Vento’s signs are an exercise in unambiguous political speech.
They contain renditions of the American flag and her national symbol, the bald eagle—unmistakable patriotic allusions. His signs say “this is America”—unambiguous statements of patriotism. Though less pointed, the signs’ final four words, “when ordering speak English,” are contextually in exactly the same vein. They emphasize the graphics’ invocation of patriotism, the earlier words’ reminder that Geno’s restaurant is in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”—and they underscore that this is an English-speaking country.
As the Geno’s case moves forward—assuming that Lawson is dumb enough to persist—those who oppose free speech when it offends someone will doubtless argue that Joey’s signs are not political speech, but rather “commercial speech” which can be regulated “in the public interest.” There will be several answers to this contention, but one will be definitive.
In the famous First Amendment case of New York Times v. Sullivan, the Court considered an allegedly offensive paid political announcement to be “not a ‘commercial advertisement’ . . . . It communicated information, expressed opinion, recited grievances, protested claimed abuses, and sought . . . support for a movement whose existence and objectives are matters of the highest public interest and concern.”
Joey Vento’s signs do exactly the same thing. They remind his actual and would-be patrons that this is the United States, that they should act like Americans, and that patriotism is alive and well at Geno’s in South Philly.
Patriotism is not discrimination. Not in South Philadelphia. Not anywhere.