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Defending the English language and free speech while cooking cheese steaks

We are a bit outside our bailiwick, but you take your defenders where you can find them, and we welcome Joey Vento’s defence of English and free speech, which was vindicated yesterday. There is also an interesting question here for any country with immigrants.

For over forty years Joey Vento's place, which is called Geno's, attracted those who like their rib-eyed steak smothered in onions and cheese. Both Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani were photographed at Geno's with cheese steak grins. Then, in 2006, Geno's became a shrine for those who prefer to hear English spoken in America.

There is no doubt that a common language is a lubricating factor when a nation is composed almost entirely of immigrants or their descendants. Joey, whose Italian grandfather never learned to speak English, was certain in his own mind that English was the language to speak.

So he slapped a sticker on Geno's sliding door that read - "This is America. Please speak English when ordering." In 2006 Joey was reported to the authorities and his sticker became either a symbol of patriotic defiance or "brazen discrimination" depending on your point of view.

While the authorities buckled down to deciding exactly which it was, support for Joey and his free speech rights poured in from across America. Because he had never denied service to anyone unable to speak English, discrimination was hard to prove; nevertheless Vento was grilled by the powers that be.

On March 19, after "a hearing on the issue of whether the signs were 'offensive,' the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations diplomatically ruled that there was insufficient evidence’ to pursue the case", and took themselves off the hook.

The sticker remains on Joey’s door, and his mood remains defiant. We look forward to visiting his premises in Philly.

Joey's experience points to a conversation that has hardly been held in Britain, but might be worthwhile. When a country welcomes immigrants, or finds immigrants imposed on it, do we expect that only the host has obligations, or can we gently but firmly insist that the guest has obligations in so far as language and behaviour are concerned?

One last thought - English is one of the world’s most flexible and hospitable languages. Brits carried it everywhere, but it travelled so well because it has a unique genius for welcoming and incorporating words from other languages. That quality makes English rich, and contributes to its role in global, as well as personal, communications.

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