A Canadian comedian who mocked a disabled singer won his free speech lawsuit in Canada’s supreme court.
In a 5-4 split decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the jokes told about the singer, who was a child at the time, did not constitute discrimination.
It marks the end of a nearly ten-year legal battle over a segment in a cabaret special.
The case, which tested the limits of free speech in Canada, received widespread attention.
It started in 2010 when Mike Ward, a popular Quebec comedian known for his edgy comedy, began telling jokes about child singer Jeremy Gabriel.
The stand-up at the center of the case dealt with issues of race and religion, as well as what Mr. Ward called the “holy cows” of the province’s celebrity industry, people he believed were for various reasons – too rich. , too powerful – seen as out of bounds for teasing.
In the segment in question, Mr. Ward made jokes about Mr. Gabriel, who as a boy had become a minor celebrity province and was known in the press as “Petit Jeremy”. Mr. Gabriel has Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetic disorder that can affect the bone structure of the face and, in his case, caused severe deafness.
The jokes referred to Mr. Gabriel’s disability and made fun of his appearance.
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The family filed a human rights complaint before the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal – a specialized court that handles cases related to discrimination or harassment under the provincial charter of rights – and the comedian lost.
Mr. Ward filed an appeal, and in a 2019 split decision, the Court of Appeals essentially upheld the court’s ruling, plus Canadian $ 35,000 ($ 27,500; £ 20,000) awarded for moral and punitive damages.
He appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that it was a matter of free speech and saying at the time that “it shouldn’t be up to a judge to decide what constitutes a joke on stage.”
On Friday, Canada’s highest court ruled that the comedy routine did not violate the province’s charter of rights.
The ruling stated that Mr. Gabriel was targeted not because of his disability, but because of his fame and that, although some comments were “ugly and shameful”, “they did not incite the public to treat Mr. Gabriel. as a subhuman “.
“The disputed comments used, rightly or wrongly, a feeling of discomfort to entertain, but they did little more than that,” the majority decision said.
In the dissenting opinion, the judges argued that the jokes, made when Mr. Gabriel was still a child, “they were pejorative insults based on his disability” and they claimed that the case concerned the rights of “vulnerable and marginalized” people to “be free from the public humiliation, cruelty, defamation and bullying that identifies them based on their disabilities “.
Mr. Ward had received support for his case from the comedy world, worried about a potential chilling effect on humor. Famous Canadian stand-up comedians such as Sugar Sammy and the late Norm MacDonald were among those who supported Mr. Ward.
On Friday, Ward tweeted “We did it Norm, we won.”
Mr. Gabriel, now in his twenties, told the media in Montreal during an emotional press conference that it was “an honor” for him to “take part in this debate and have my say.”
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