A Canadian comedian who had mocked a disabled singer has won his free speech case in the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 split decision, the top court ruled that jokes told about the singer, who was a child at the time, did not amount to discrimination.
It marks the end of a decade-long legal battle over a segment in a stand-up comedy special. The case against the comedian, which tested the limits of free speech in Canada, has received massive attention.
It began in 2010, when Mike Ward, a popular comedian from Quebec known for his edgy comedy, started telling jokes about child singer Jeremy Gabriel.
The stand-up act at the centre of the case had issues revolving around race and religion, as well as what Ward has called the “sacred cows” of the province’s celebrity industry, people who in his view were for various reasons – too rich, too powerful – seen as out-of-bounds for mockery.
With the segment in question, the comedian had made jokes about Gabriel, a young boy who had become a minor celebrity province and was known in the media as “Petit Jeremy”. Gabriel has Treacher Collins Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects facial bone structure and, in his case, caused severe deafness.
The family filed a human rights complaint before the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal – a specialised court that manages cases related to discrimination or harassment under the provincial rights charter – and the comedian lost.
He had appealed and in a 2019 split decision, the Court of Appeal mostly upheld the tribunal’s ruling, as well as C$35,000 ($27,500; £20,000) awarded in moral and punitive damages.
He appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that it was a free speech matter and saying at the time that it “shouldn’t be up to a judge to decide what constitutes a joke on stage”.
Canada’s highest court ruled that the comedy routine did not breach the province’s rights charter on Friday.
The ruling said that Gabriel was targeted not because of his disability, but for his fame, and that while some of the comments were “nasty and disgraceful”, they “did not incite the audience to treat Mr Gabriel as subhuman”.
“The impugned comments exploited, rightly or wrongly, a feeling of discomfort in order to entertain, but they did little more than that,” the majority decision said. Mr Ward had received support for his case from the comedy world, which was concerned about a potential chilling effect on humour. Well-known Canadian stand-up comedians like Sugar Sammy and the late Norm MacDonald were among those to back Mr Ward.
In the other opinion, the justices argued that the jokes that were made when Gabriel was still a child, “were pejorative slurs based on his disability” and said the case was about rights of “vulnerable and marginalised” people “to be free from the public humiliation, cruelty, vilification and bullying that singles them out on the basis of their disability”.
Comedian Ward tweeted on Friday, “We did it Norm, we won.” Gabriel, now in his 20s, told the media in Montreal during an emotional news conference that is had been “an honour” for him “to have been part of this debate and to have had my say”.