Did you hear the one about the comedian who walked into a tribunal with an insult – and lost? It’s actually not a joke. Mike Ward, a comedian from Quebec known for his edgy and dark humour, is presently appealing a 2016 ruling by a Quebec Human Rights Tribunal that judged his shows between 2010 and 2013 had included discriminatory comments (jokes) about Jeremy Gabriel, a young disabled singer. He was ordered to pay $35,000 in ‘moral and punitive damages’ to the singer and $7,000 to his mother.
Mike Ward was not pleased with the ruling and very concerned how his case could affect other comedians down the road – where they might be afraid to do some of their material if the possibility of them being taking to court remained. His felt his Freedom of Speech was threatened and had launched a crowdfunding campaign in order to pay his legal bills and move forward with the appeal. Just how did this all come about?
Jeremy Gabriel, was born prematurely in 1996 with head, facial, ear and skull deformities – at 6 months old he was diagnosed with Treacher Collins syndrome. His claim to fame in the province was brought about after he sang with Celine Dion and then for the Pope in 2006. It seems a bright light was shining in Jeremy’s life, until Mike Ward began telling jokes about him in 2010.
Using material about Jeremy in his shows at the time, Ward would start with saying something like he ‘first thought Gabriel’s illness was terminal’ and people were only nice to him and celebrities only sang with him, even if his singing was lousy… ‘because he would soon be dead’. Ward then went on to say things like ‘after a few years, (he) realized the the kid wasn’t dying’ and felt he’d been ‘duped’ and Jeremy ‘was still going strong’. He then continued with his joke, ‘He’s unkillable! I saw him at the waterpark, and I tried to drown him, but I couldn’t. Then I went on the Internet to figure out what was wrong with him, and you know what it was? He’s ugly, goddammit!’.
Jeremy, who is now 22 years old, was cited as saying in a recent Canadian Press report that ‘kids at his school made fun of him by repeating Ward’s jokes. He said the stand-up routine made him question his value as a human being and gave him suicidal thoughts. The Quebec court judge ruled Mike Ward’s joke ‘violated Gabriel’s right to dignity, honour and reputation, as well as his right to equality and to be safe from discrimination’. Ward’s lawyer insists his jokes were not discriminatory telling the judge, “Discrimination would have been if he wasn’t admitted somewhere, or if he was evaluated in a different way. It’s not enough to make fun of him to create a discrimination.”
Rights Tribunal lawyer Stephanie Fournier asks, ‘is Freedom of Expression violated when it is at the cost of humiliating a person or violating their dignity… because they are disabled?’ and she goes on to tell the judges, ‘It is not a matter of freedom of expression being less important than other rights… the nuance, is that the exercise of freedom of expression should not violate the fundamental rights of another person’. In the end, the main question remains: To what degree should insults, humiliation and the violation of dignity to an individual or group be allowed to ‘hide’ or be ‘excused’ under the guise or umbrella of comedy?
Feature image: Jeereemy Gabriel with the Pope 2006 – Jeremy FB page