An American Tragedy — Albeit Non-Fatal

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I’ve only been to Philadelphia once, and that was a fleeting visit that took us to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Supreme Court building, etc. We then were taken on a tour of the downtown area, taking in various points of interest, as well as some residential neighborhoods. I enjoyed it.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to Philadelphia, but if I do, I will try to visit another, more recent, American landmark, namely Geno’s Steak House. From what I’ve read, it’s a favorite with Philadelphians hankering for one of the city’s famous sandwiches, but that isn’t what gives it prominence, at least in my eyes.

Rather, it is a legal battle in which Geno recently found himself embroiled because of a sign he posted in his establishment. The sign read, "When ordering, speak English." He ended up in court because of it.

I assume, reasonably, that the restaurant is called Geno’s because Geno owns it. And I am old enough — a couple of times over — to recall when ownership equated with control. Geno may labor under the same delusion. Common sense suffices to tell you that even if a restaurant is under your control, you are not thereby justified in punching someone in the nose if they order their sandwich in Greek. But do you have to apologize for asking them to speak English?

Apparently, yes. Some busybodies accused Geno of discriminating, saying his sign discouraged customers of particular ethnic backgrounds from patronizing his shop. Don’t you just cringe at "customers of particular ethnic backgrounds?" What they mean, in less convoluted English (if we may use that language exclusively here) is "foreigners." Geno is asking foreigners in his establishment to speak English. He’s not threatening them if they don’t, or even claiming the right to deny them service, etc. He’s just asking them to speak English.

I guess it’s possible that some potential customers were "discouraged" by the sign. Maybe so discouraged that they left, and went to another restaurant. Who was hurt? If anyone, it was Geno, and if he’s not complaining, why should anyone else complain? Is there some legally guaranteed right to eat at a specific restaurant? Or does one have a right not to be discouraged?

The answer, in some quarters, is "yes." Geno’s lawyers were surprised that he triumphed in his day in court. But maybe they should have expected it. If a sign requesting that English be spoken can so "discourage" a customer that he feels nothing short of litigation can assuage his bruised feelings, what about a sign that says "No Smoking?"

I’ll bet Geno has a "No Smoking" sign in his establishment (and I call it "his," despite the obvious fact that he is not free to manage it as he sees fit) even though he may have no objection to his customers smoking. But whether he does or doesn’t, the "No Smoking" sign is probably mandated by law. Does it cause some customers to feel discouraged? If they felt so discouraged that they sued Geno, could the judge order the discouraging sign removed? Don’t be silly!

The truth of the matter is that the owner of the establishment — any establishment — may post any sign he wants, and if it discourages some customers: too bad. In this case, the owner of Geno’s is not Geno. Oh, he may have built the place, and he may maintain it, and pay the dozens of taxes demanded of him, but his ownership is only a veneer — and a very thin one at that. It was easily pierced by a simple sign saying, "Please order in English." The real owners are the rulers, and among their many rules must be some that mandate various signs, such as "No Smoking," or even "Men" or "Women," which may confound and discourage those befuddled by their sexuality. I’m guessing that the rulers realize that if they forbid a sign which merely requests the use of English, they might also have to forbid a sign which demands no smoking, but that sign is one of theirs, and utterly and absolutely proper. It couldn’t possibly discourage any right-thinking individual. It stays.

Of course, if Geno put up a sign that proclaimed, "The Rulers Are a Bunch of Self-Righteous Asses," he’d go too far. Our masters are ever so tolerant and understanding, but even their patience can be tried. Especially by the truth!

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is author of All Work & No Pay, which is out of print, but may occasionally be obtained on eBay.

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