MONTREAL – About a decade ago Quebec comedian Mike Ward taunted the voice of a well-known disabled teenage singer on a stand-up routine, toasted him for being wrong, made fun of his hearing aid, and called him “ugly.” “But he said he defended the boy against others because he was going to die soon. When the teenager did not die of his illness, the comedian joked, tried to drown him.
Last week, the question of whether a comedian has the constitutional right to be insulted took center stage in the Supreme Court of Canada nationwide after Mr Ward appealed a ruling that the comedy routine discriminated against singer Jérémy Gabriel.
The headline case is a rare example of a comedy routine that becomes the subject of the country’s highest court and could have an impact on freedom of expression in Canada. Renée Thériault, Senior Legal Officer at the Supreme Court, emailed that the case was “unprecedented” to her knowledge.
Comedy has long mirrored a nation’s cultural mores, sometimes exposing the fault lines in a society and testing the legal limits of acceptable language. Canada and countries around the world, including the United States, are facing increasing pressures to respect minority rights and have sparked a debate about where to draw the line between harmful language and freedom of expression.
In Canada, which prides itself on its humanism, the case of Mr. Ward was particularly polarizing.
On one side are civic libertarians and artists who argue that offensive jokes, outrageous as they are, are protected under the freedom of expression of the Canadian Constitution. The Supreme Court police comedy, it is said, is in danger of terrifying artistic expression across Canada.
Carissima Mathen, professor of law and constitutional law expert at the University of Ottawa, said a verdict against Mr Ward could potentially open the door for people in other provinces to bring legal cases against comedians against them.
Under the Canadian Constitution, the bar for encroaching on freedom of expression is very high, according to Ms. Mathen, and generally requires extreme language. For example a speech promoting hatred against an identifiable group. “I don’t think Ward’s statements go to this extreme level,” she said.
But disability rights advocate Mr Gabriel and some human rights lawyers argue that even comedy should have limits and that bullying a disabled teenager is discriminatory and violates the right to dignity protected under Quebec law.
Mr. Gabriel has Treacher Collins Syndrome, a rare congenital disease characterized by skull and facial deformities. He was born deaf and received a hearing aid implant at the age of 6. He won hearts across Quebec at the age of 8 after singing the national anthem at a Montreal Canadiens hockey game. He then met Celine Dion in Las Vegas, brought Pope Benedict XVI. Serenaded in the Vatican and wrote an autobiography.
Mr Gabriel, now a 24-year-old political science student in Quebec City, said in an interview that the comedy routine – and the loud laughs it provoked – destroyed his self-esteem in difficult teenage years when he was already grappling with being with special needs. As a result of the routine, he said he was bullied at school and became depressed and suicidal while his parents were beaten down. He said he also received death threats from the comedian’s fans following his complaint against Mr. Ward.
“You already deal with prejudice when you have a disability, and the process of self-acceptance is even more difficult as a teenager,” he said. “It got a thousand times harder when people laughed at the idea that I was dying. I felt my life was worth less than others. “
Mr. Ward declined an interview request through his manager.
In the United States, Lenny Bruce has been dubbed the “sick comic” because of his explosive routines. In 1961 he was arrested in San Francisco for profanity. His defiance helped pave the way for other iconoclastic comedians.
In France, comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala has been repeatedly charged with violating anti-hate laws. It is widely associated with a reverse Nazi salute known as the Quenelle. In 2013 he complained that a well-known Jewish journalist did not die in “the gas chambers”.
In Canada, the Supreme Court case has alarmed the comedy world.
Sugar Sammy, a popular Canadian comedian whose taboo busting included roasting ethnic minorities, feared that a possible ruling against Mr. Ward could encourage self-censorship and even force Canadian comics to emigrate to the United States. He is particularly concerned about the dampening effect on improvisation that it requires to be unfiltered. In the past, his sharp satire of Quebec nationalists has sparked outrage and death threats.
“Whether we’re talking about Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor or George Carlin, the comedian’s role in society has long been about pushing boundaries and saying what people think but are too scared to say,” said Sammy. “Do I have to have a lawyer review my comedy routine or think about whether I’m in the Supreme Court before each joke?”
Mr. Ward, a stand-up comic that was twice named Comedian of the Year at a prestigious comedy awards ceremony in Quebec, has made international television appearances and is known for his precise comedic style. In 2008, his joke about a 9-year-old girl who was kidnapped spurred death threats against him.
The Supreme Court case had its roots in 2010 when the comedian used his act to poke fun at people in Quebec who were viewed as overly critical and targeted celebrities like Celine Dion. He also aimed at Mr. Gabriel and made fun of his hearing aid, among other things, calling him “the kid with the subwoofer” on his head. The show was performed and broadcast online hundreds of times between 2010 and 2013.
In 2012, Mr. Gabriel’s family complained to a commission responsible for the enforcement of the Quebec Human Rights Code, and in 2016 the provincial human rights court ruled that the teenager’s dignity had been violated. Mr. Ward was ordered to pay Mr. Gabriel $ 35,000 in damages and his mother $ 7,000 in damages.
After Mr. Ward appealed, the Quebec Court of Appeals upheld the decision in 2019 but dismissed the damages awarded to Mr. Gabriel’s mother. “Comedy is not a crime,” Ward said in a statement following the verdict. A decision is expected in the next few months on his appeal to the Supreme Court.
The differences of opinion on the case became apparent this week at a Supreme Court hearing where some of the judges were outwardly annoyed at least once by the arguments of Mr. Ward’s attorney Julius Gray.
Before the court’s nine judges, Mr. Gray argued that the right “not to be offended” was not a right in Canada. He also claimed that he had given him a sense of “equality” by singling out Mr. Gabriel as the “sacred cow” that needed to be pierced.
The comment sparked an incredulous reaction from Judge Russell Brown. “Come on! Don’t go that far,” the judge told the court. “We’re not talking about Galileo or Salman Rushdie. He’s not a hero.”
Justice Sheilah L. Martin also weighed in: “We’re talking about someone who said he tried to drown a 13-year-old with a physical disability,” she said.
Mr. Gray said in an interview that Mr. Ward’s comedy routine was non-discriminatory. “Discrimination means depriving someone of a good or service – not laughing at them,” he said.
Mr. Gabriel countered that he was singled out for ridicule because of his disability and that this had shaped his life.
“It’s hard to live with the aftermath of a joke that targets you because of your disability,” he said. “I’m not sure how I managed to build my confidence after that. I’ve grown up since I first heard the joke. I want to go on. “
Geneva Abdul contributed to the research.