Free Speech and Cheesesteaks

Here’s an interesting question for all y’all:

Where do we draw the line between one man’s right to free speech, and another’s right to be free from discrimination?

That’s the question set for debate in Philadelphia. Joey Vento, owner of Geno’s Cheesesteaks, gained notoriety last summer for his vigilante anti-immigration campaign. Apparently frustrated with the fact that Mexican immigrants are slowly beginning to outnumber South Philly’s traditionally Italian-American culture, Vento posted a sign requiring all customers to speak English while ordering. This sparked a national discussion about the rights of Vento to control his business, and the rights of customers to speak their own language.

This week, Vento was notified by the Philadelphia Commission for Human Relations that his guerilla war on immigration is discriminatory. Vento asserts that the sign is merely an exercise of his First Amendment rights.

So, here we go: free speech versus tolerance.

(The irony of the situation is that Geno’s has an unwritten rule requiring patrons to speak gibberish while ordering. Personally, I’m a big fan of the ‘whiz wit,’ although I’d much rather go across the street to Pat’s.)

But, both of Philly’s landmark cheesesteak stands have publicly posted a stringent policy requiring patrons to order their food properly. You have to say the type of cheese, and whether you want onion (hence, whiz wit). Each stand has a sign saying something to the effect of, “if you can’t do it right, go to the back of the line.” As far as I know, neither Geno’s nor Pat’s have ever faced a discrimination charge for these signs, which obviously favor those of us who’re “quick thinkers” – largely because everyone knows it’s a big joke. Similarly, Vento asserts he’s never denied anyone service based on his “English-only” sign, and that the sign itself is nothing more than a manifestation of his stance on the illegal immigration debate.

Then again, Vento’s sign may serve to discourage potential customers who struggle with the English language. There’s no logical way for a tourist, unfamiliar with local customs, to recognize that the sign is merely expression, not a rule. Thus, Vento is creating a potentially hostile and unwelcoming environment for non-English speakers.

So, whose rights prevail? Vento’s right to assert his beliefs, or his patron’s right to be free from discrimination?

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user missjasmine, shared with Creative Commons 2.0 license)

Published in: on February 9, 2007 at 9:32 pm Comments (5)

5 Comments

  1. On February 11, 2007 at 11:42 pm Neal Said:

    Unfortunately, this appears to be nothing more than a continuation of the very disturbing trend of political correctness slowly eroding free speech rights.

    The problem here is that Vento hasn’t actually denied service to anyone. Even if he did, the denial wouldn’t be based on any of the usual discrimination criteria (race, gender, religion), but rather because the excluded person couldn’t actually order the food. In short, service to the person is still available, they just have to be able to order off the menu in a manner that can be understood by the cashier. At a place like Geno’s (located directly across the street from Pat’s (its main competition), time is indeed money. Vento would certainly be within his rights to ask someone to step out of the line until they were ready and able to order off the menu.

    In this instance, Vento isn’t being harrassed for actually denying someone service based on ethnicity, but rather for exercising his rights to free speech. Freedom of speech exists to protect both the ideas we love, and the ideas that we hate. To say that certain ideas and certain expression is off limits simply because it is unpopular strikes at the heart of all we hold dear in our society. We must allow people like Vento to express ideas of this nature, just as we must allow affirmative action bake sales, Nazis marching in Skokie, anti-war rallies, and anti abortion protestors. To do otherwise is to take that first step down the path of true intollerance.

    Or as South Park so aptly put it, either it’s all ok, or none of it is.

  2. On February 12, 2007 at 10:42 am Randy Said:

    “We must allow people like Vento to express ideas of this nature, just as we must allow affirmative action bake sales, Nazis marching in Skokie, anti-war rallies, and anti abortion protestors. To do otherwise is to take that first step down the path of true intollerance.”

    Yeah, that’s where this whole thing pisses me off. Intuitively, I want Vento to get his ass handed to him. He comes from a family of Italian-American immigrants, many of whom couldn’t speak English upon arriving in the country. He’s undeniably proud of his Italian roots, and is obviously annoyed at the influx of Mexican-Americans into the region, thereby changing the social and cultural demographic – just like his ancestors did in the last 150 years. The hypocracy is what kills me; and it’s not like he’s speaking out on “illegal immigration;” he’s speaking out against non-English speakers. The smug bigotry inherent in his sticker is so blatant that I want to go to Geno’s, order a cheesesteak (with onions), smother it with hot sauce, and throw it back in his face.

    Nonetheless, you’re absolutely right. He hasn’t actually done anything tangible upon which he could be sued. It’s just a sticker, and until he refuses service, it’s hard to justify punishing him. After all, if we start censoring contoversial speech, we set up a situation that opens the doors to start legislating all sorts of potentially positive speech, so long as it’s controversial.

    It’s a shame, to me, that such ignorance is actually setting the stage for Vento to become a martyr for free speech rights. I wish it were someone saying something cooler – alas, were it someone saying something cooler, they probably wouldn’t be in any potential trouble.

    (Note to potential employers: I’m never actually going to throw a cheesesteak at anyone at Geno’s. This is an example of hyperbole.)

  3. On February 12, 2007 at 8:56 pm Taimyoboi Said:

    “The smug bigotry inherent in his sticker is so blatant that I want to go to Geno’s, order a cheesesteak (with onions), smother it with hot sauce, and throw it back in his face.”

    Perhaps this is not the hypocrisy that you so quickly label it to be.

    Quite conceivably, Geno’s recognizes that the reason he is able to enjoy the success he does today is because his relatives understood the value of assimilating quickly into the culture they had immigrated too, including by learning english.

    To you or I, it may look like a harsh and unfair rule, but he might recognize it as encouraging them to move as quickly up the ladder and Italian Americans did.

    Either way, Jim’s on 4th Street is worlds better than either Pat’s or Geno’s.

  4. On February 12, 2007 at 10:22 pm Neal Said:

    I disagree completely, Taimyoboi…Pat’s is much better.

  5. On February 12, 2007 at 11:00 pm Randy Said:

    “To you or I, it may look like a harsh and unfair rule, but he might recognize it as encouraging them to move as quickly up the ladder and Italian Americans did.”

    True, this is an entirely plausible construction. I’m basing my assumptions (and I admit they’re just that, assumptions) on the various statements Vento has made to the public regarding this “being America” and everyone having to “speak English.” I haven’t read much about his desire to encourage everyone to assimilate…that doesn’t necessarily mean he hasn’t said it, though. Nonetheless, there’s still two problems: 1) there are more tactful ways at encouraging people, and 2) non-native English speakers aren’t under any specific obligation to assimilate. European tourists could be passing through the city on their obligatory trip from NYC to DC, stopping by to see if they can catch a glimpse of Allen Iverson at Friday’s, but then, realizing that he was unceremoniously removed from the city, they decide to see what the cheesesteak fuss is all about…they show up at Geno’s, see the sign, become dejected, say “screw it,” and head straight to DC to get a burger and fries at Five Guys.