Geno's owner takes on Philadelphia

April 8, 2008 3:31:28 PM PDT
Business has thrived at Geno's while a controversial sign in the order window thrust the South Philadelphia steak shop into the international limelight. The sign reads "This is America. When ordering speak English."

Last month the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission ended a nearly two year investigation into charges that the sign discriminates and violates the city's fair practices ordinance. A panel found it does not discriminate.

"This is America. When ordering please speak English. With that said, what is the big deal?" said Joey Vento, who owns Geno's.

While Vento, 68, feels vindicated, he says was treated unfairly. He says the long and arbitrary process violated his constitutional rights to free speech and due process. He wants the city to amend its fair practices ordinance so that it's not arbitrarily enforced.

"Right now the language is vague. It's arbitrary and violates every person's rights in the city that are subject to it," said Shannon Goessling, Vento's attorney.

Additionally, Vento wants an apology from Mayor Michael Nutter who, he says, spoke publicly against Geno's sign before the panel's findings.

Vento also expressed disappointment with Councilman James Kenney. Kenney did not support fair practices violation charges against Vento, but suggested publicly that he remove the sign.

"He still hasn't faced me man to man and explained to me how he finds the sign offensive," said Vento.

"The sign in my view is hurtful to the city's image nationally as tourist destination. We're marketing a city around the world for people to come here and we have a known business that's telling people speak English or you can be refused the right of service," said Councilman James Kenney.

Vento maintains his sign is not divisive, but rather encourages people to speak the language that unites this country.

"With my big mouth, I woke up the country. I get thousands of e-mails supporting me. This is what the country is thinking," he said.

Vento is asking city council to create a panel to look at the issues they are raising. If no response within 30 days, Vento plans to file a lawsuit against the city.

He says it's not about money, but making sure other businesses do not go through what says he has. If awarded money, he plans to give back to the city.