Free Speech or Discrimination?

Canadian comedian Mike Ward has won his decade long free speech battle to make jokes about a disabled child. Judges on Canada's Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favour of the comedian's argument that his material mocking singer Jeremy Gabriel did not amount to discrimination. The decision overturns a 2019 ruling by the highest court in Quebec, Canada. Ward’s case was a cause celebration for campaigners who said the original ruling was a restriction on freedom of speech.

In his stage act and in stand-up specials which aired between 2010 and 2013, Ward made jokes about disabled teenager Jéremy Gabriel, who is now 24. Gabriel was born with head, facial, ear and skull deformities. Known as Petit Jeremy, the singer has the condition Treacher Collins Syndrome, which also made him severely deaf. He gained fame as a singer, performing for Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 and singing Canada’s national anthem at a hockey game five years later.

Ward joked about the shape of Gabriel’s head and his hearing aids, which were originally deemed

discriminatory against Gabriel's rights to ‘dignity, honour and reputation’. In his act, Ward joked that people had only let ‘ugly’ Gabriel sing with celebrities because he would soon be dead, he then said he tried to drown Gabriel, but he wouldn’t die.

Ward’s lawyers had argued that since Gabriel’s singing career is based on his triumph over disability, therefore the subject is in the public arena and so fair game for jokes. Ward argued he was targeting the 'sacred cows' of Quebec's celebrity industry and argued that 'it shouldn't be up to a judge to decide what constitutes a joke on stage'

Now Canada's highest court ruled that the routine did not breach the province's rights charter, saying that while some of the comments were 'nasty and disgraceful' and 'exploited feeling of discomfort in order to entertain' they 'did not incite the audience to treat Mr Gabriel as subhuman'. The ruling added that while it was 'likely' people would be inspired by to mock Gabriel based on Wards jokes, that would not be the comedian's fault.

The judges that disagreed with the majority ruling said they though vulnerable and marginalised people should 'be free from the public humiliation, cruelty, vilification and bullying that singles them out on the basis of their disability'. 'Wrapping such discriminatory conduct in the protective cloak of speech does not make it any less intolerable when that speech amounts to wilful emotional abuse of a disabled child,' the dissenting justices said.

In a press conference after the ruling, reported by Canadian broadcaster CBC, Gabriel had a message for Ward, saying: 'I would like to tell him how I felt when I first heard the jokes. That I tried to end my life... How it felt at 13 years old because a 40-year-old man said you should die, that you thought it was the right thing to do.'

It is obvious that Ward's comments had a negative impact on Gabriel's life. While his jokes did not allude to Gabriel being subhuman, they did allude to him being worthy of death in the form of drowning. From my perspective it is difficult to see how such horrible comments could be funny, no matter the context they were said in. While it would be a restriction on free speech to ban the use of such nasty jokes, I feel this is a positive thing. As we can now see what kind of person Ward is, how he treats people with disabilities, and how he believes they should respond to such ill treatment. In my opinion the verdict simply demonstrates that being allowed to say such things in the form of a 'joke', is a method of highlighting the true colours of perpetrators like Ward.

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