A Quebec judge rejected part of comedian Mike Ward’s appeal regarding a joke about a disabled boy.
Ward was ordered to pay $35,000 to Jeremy Gabriel, who suffers from a genetic disorder that causes facial deformity and affects his hearing, due to a joke the comedian told at shows between 2010 and 2013.
Two of three judges ruled Mike Ward’s comments regarding Gabriel were not justifiable in a society where freedom of expression is valued.
Ward was originally ordered to pay an additional $7,000 to Gabriel’s mother—a fine which the courts overturned due to the indirect relationship between the joke and the boy’s mother.
The joke in question was regarding Gabriel’s disability. In 2005, Gabriel sang to Pope Benedict and Celine Dion to flesh out his dream of becoming an international singer.
Ward’s jokes called Gabriel a bad singer, stating that he was “terminally ill” and that Gabriel not passing away meant that his “Make a Wish” was invalid. Gabriel was not actually terminally ill, as Gabriel’s genetic disease—Treacher Collins syndrome—does not generally have an effect on lifespan. He was also not a Make-a-Wish kid, as Ward was embellishing the story for the sake of the joke.
Ward added that he tried to drown Gabriel, but he wouldn’t die.
The Quebec Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the joke discriminated against Gabriel and his parents, ordering Ward to pay damages for “making discriminatory comments regarding Jéremy Gabriel, infringing his right to equality.”
Ward later tweeted that he would not be paying any fines, and planned to take his case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
“In a ‘free’ country, it shouldn’t be up to a judge to decide what constitutes a joke on stage,” he wrote. “The people in attendance laughing already answered that question.”
Ward’s lawyer, Julius Grey, believes the decision seriously impacts the world of stand-up comedy.
“In this particular case, if the judgement is maintained, no one will be able to dare to be a stand-up comic, because normally you make fun of things that are controversial—otherwise it’s not funny,” Grey said. “If anything that is controversial can authorize someone to say ‘I was hurt, I’m going to court,’ we’re finished.”
Ward will appeal the case to the Supreme Court, Grey said on Thursday.
While the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of expression, the Appeals Court ruled that Ward had gone too far, passing what’s permissible by law.
“What is funny for some can be considered bad taste by others … Humour, especially the kind of humour that Mr. Ward practices, can appeal to sarcasm, mockery and even insult. The border between a limitation to freedom of expression in the name of dignity and censorship is thin. … Comedians must realize, however, that artistic freedom is not absolute and that they, like all citizens, are responsible for the consequences of their words when they cross certain limits.”