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Jewish World Review
March 24, 2008
/ 17 Adar II 5768
Tongue Twister: A Philly cheesesteak shop asks customers to speak English, survives an inquisition
John H. Fund
It was the small sign that stirred up a legal tornado. Last week, Joey Vento, owner of a popular Philadelphia cheesesteak restaurant, finally won the right to keep his sign: "This is America: When Ordering, Please Speak English." It took him two years, much abuse and hundreds of hours of work by paid and volunteer lawyers, but a local regulatory body finally ruled his sign wasn't discriminatory or offensive.
Mr. Vento, owner of Geno's Steaks, says he never refused service to anyone who didn't speak English and put up the sign only as a political statement because so many people were lapsing into their native tongues when they could have used basic English. "I wanted to keep the line moving," he says. He also puckishly noted that someone who didn't know English couldn't read the sign anyway.
But that's not how Philadelphia's Commission on Human Relations saw it. Last year, after an extensive investigation, it found probable cause that Mr. Vento had engaged in discriminatory behavior because his sign discouraged customers from certain backgrounds from eating there. A final ruling against Mr. Vento could have resulted in fines and a move to revoke his business license.
At a six-hour legal inquisition last December, Paul Hummer, the city's lawyer, argued that the sign "discriminates on the basis of national origin because national origin and language are linked." He even implausibly claimed the sign harkened back to the "Whites Only" postings of the Jim Crow era in the segregated South.
Shannon Goessling, Mr. Vento's attorney, responded that the sign was more akin to the "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service" signs that patrons often see. "Do you want the freedom from being offended or the freedom of speech?" she asked the three-member panel hearing the case. "You can't have both."
By a vote of 2-1, the panel decided to leave Geno's Steaks alone. "The matter is behind us, and I look forward to directing this agency to more progressive ends," said chairman Nick Taliaferro.
The Battle of the Cheesesteak Sign may be over, but the larger war over the use of English in this country rages on. Last year, California's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, himself an immigrant, urged Hispanics to assimilate and said the way ahead in this country is "to turn off the Spanish TV set. It's that simple. You've got to learn English."
Statistics back him up. TV Azteca, Mexico's second-largest network, has launched a 60-hour series of English classes on all its U.S. affiliates. It recognizes that learning English empowers Latinos. "If you live in this country, you to speak as everybody else," Jose Martin Samano, Azteca's U.S. anchor, told Fox News. "Immigrants here in the U.S. can make up to 50% or 60% more if they speak both English and Spanish. This is something we have to do for our own people."
But there are powerful forces trying to make assimilation a dirty word. Consider just how much resistance Sen. Lamar Alexander is getting over his attempt to bar the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from launching "frivolous lawsuits" like the ones it filed last year against the Salvation Army and 125 other businesses for requiring workers to speak English on the job.
The EEOC claims businesses are free to have English-only policies if there is a "business necessity" for them, but the expense and hassle of proving that is on the employer. Mr. Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, says the EEOC has better things to do. He wants to redirect the $670,000 spent by the EEOC on its anti-English lawsuits into a federal program that teach adults English.
In November the House joined the Senate in voting for his idea. But when the measure was set to go to a conference committee that would write the final language, Speaker Nancy Pelosi cancelled the meeting because of pressure from liberal groups. The House Hispanic Caucus withheld its votes from a key bill granting relief on the Alternative Minimum Tax until she promised to kill the Salvation Army relief amendment. The bill died.
Earlier this month, Mr. Alexander revived his idea and convinced the Senate to pass it again. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton voted against the idea; John McCain was not present. The measure now goes to the House, where it is likely to run into the Pelosi buzz saw of political correctness.
That's a shame on many levels. The U.S. can welcome immigrants while at the same time encouraging assimilation. Everyone is free to practice the customs and language of his native land, but today immigrants are actively discouraged from learning the few common things that bind this country together, such as English. Already a tenth of the population speaks English poorly or not at all. Almost a quarter of all K-12 students nationwide are children of immigrants living between two worlds. Anti-immigration sentiment will only rise if assimilation continues to be a dirty word.
In 1999, President Clinton said that "new immigrants have a responsibility to enter the mainstream of American life." A few years earlier, Mr. Clinton and a GOP Congress joined to pass welfare reform, which has pushed recipients into the mainstream of the workforce with great success.
It's time for similar bold, bipartisan action to promote the teaching of English and thus help bring immigrants out of the linguistic shadows. Instead, we get the spectacle of Speaker Pelosi blocking legislation that would simply allow the Salvation Army to require that its workers understand each other in a common language.
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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
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© 2006, John H. Fund
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