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Comedian Mike Ward won’t be muzzled, and he’s taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court.
In 2016, the Human Rights Tribunal of Quebec ordered Ward to pay $42,000 in compensation to plaintiff Jeremy Gabriel for having made fun of him during a skit – a decision that was contested by Ward but eventually upheld by Quebec’s Appeal Court. Stating that he would rather go to jail than pay even a fraction of the penalty, the comedian has now turned to the Supreme Court to hear his case and overturn the decision.
Many have been scratching their heads at how things even got this far. How can it be that, despite the considerable leeway enjoyed by artists of all backgrounds to freely express their creativity, a gag order is being placed on what can and cannot be said as part of a comedy routine?
Born in 1996, Gabriel was diagnosed with Treacher Collins syndrome, a disease that causes deformities of the ears, eyes, cheekbones, and chin. But he became a bit of a household name when he was asked to sing for the Pope at age 10, and to join Celine Dion onstage at a separate event. He was eventually invited to perform the national anthem at a Montreal Canadiens’ hockey game and asked to become co-ambassador for the Shriners Hospital for Children, performing in several North America events on their behalf. A mini-celebrity, one could say – one that was strongly supported by the public, who watched him morph from child into a teenager and eventually into a young adult.
But Gabriel would soon discover the price of fame – that of becoming a target when you are in the public eye. And so it wasn’t long before Ward singled him out in one of his stand-up routines, describing him flat-out as “ugly” and musing about why he was still alive after all these years – should he not already have died from his disease by now?? Isn’t that, after all, why everyone put up with his mediocre singing – because he was living on borrowed time?
There are many places where one can have a discussion about whether or not these jokes were tasteless, or appropriate, or funny. But this isn’t such a place, and that is not the question.
The question is whether or not Mike Ward has a right to make those jokes and whether or not they are protected under the banner of freedom of speech. And the answer seems obvious - we don’t have free speech to protect those who want to exchange pleasantries, we have it specifically so that people can freely express their thoughts and beliefs, as uncomfortable as they may be to some. The legal decision should send a collective chill down everyone’s spine, because, as Ward himself notes, this is the canary in the coalmine test – if we can start dictating what comedians can say out loud, then who’s to say what restrictions are next.
Plus, one cannot separate the act from its intention, which was never malicious or aimed to inflict pain. Ward specifically said that had Gabriel at ANY point come to see him and asked him to pull this bit from the act he would have done so in a heartbeat, but because Gabriel went to the authorities and the courts, he decided to stand his ground based on principle.
Many people agree with the court’s decision, as they sympathize with Gabriel’s pain and have a soft spot for him. The natural human instinct is to protect those we see as vulnerable, and to make sure someone pays for causing their pain. But the laws specifically abstain from emotion – something is either right, or it is wrong. And if it is not wrong according to the legal definition, then the accused must unshackled. It’s really very simple.
So here’s to hoping that the Supreme Court steps to the plate and makes things right in the name of justice and freedom of speech.
Sandra is a blogger, life coach and activist.