MONTREAL, Quebec, Canada (PNN) - November 29, 2019 - Comedian Mike Ward can’t get away with saying whatever he wants “under the guise of comedy,” the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled on Thursday, upholding a previous decision that ordered him to pay $35,000 to a disabled boy he mocked.
But an adamant Ward quickly responded to the ruling in a social media statement, saying he once again refuses to pay and intends to bring the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
“Comedy is not a crime,” Ward wrote. “I’m telling you right now. I would rather go to prison than pay one-tenth of this stupid fine.”
The 64-page appellate court decision says its findings should not be interpreted as meaning comedians can’t tell jokes about people with disabilities or even about the boy involved in the case, singer Jérémy Gabriel, in the future.
“It’s all about the circumstances,” the decision reads, noting how the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal had found Ward’s comments “exceeded the limits of what a reasonable person must tolerate in the name of freedom of expression.”
The tribunal had ruled in 2016 that Ward’s performances included discriminatory comments against Gabriel. It ordered him to pay the singer $35,000 and an additional $7,000 to his mother.
Ward appealed the decision soon after, with his lawyer, Julius Grey, positioning the case as a matter of figuring out the extent of artistic freedom within freedom of speech.
In a decision supported by two of three judges Thursday, Quebec’s highest court upheld the $35,000 payment to Gabriel, but ruled Ward won’t need to pay the singer’s mother.
The decision notes that though the judges don’t doubt Gabriel’s mother was hurt by the comments, they couldn’t conclude she “personally experienced discrimination” as a result.
Ward welcomed that part of the ruling in his statement, saying it means that in Canada, “if someone makes fun of you, your family doesn’t deserve financial compensation.”
Gabriel, 22, has Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare genetic condition characterized by underdeveloped cheekbones and jaws. He gained fame in Quebec after singing the national anthem at a Montreal Canadiens home game, and later singing with Céline Dion and for Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.
In Ward’s offending joke, performed in sets between 2010 and 2013, he poked fun at Gabriel’s appearance, his illness, and his abilities as a singer. He joked about defending Gabriel’s poor singing because he thought he was fatally ill but later realized he was only “ugly”. He then joked about trying to kill him by drowning him.
Gabriel says bullies used Ward’s joke to taunt him in high school and that the stress led him to attempt suicide.
The appellate court ruled Ward failed to demonstrate any “reviewable error” in the decision ordering him to pay damages. It also questioned the comedian’s behavior in the years since the controversy.
“Mr. Ward claims he would be willing to remove a joke if the person concerned is hurt by it,” the decision says. “Yet even after the institution of judicial proceedings, Mr. Ward continued to repeat his words about Mr. Gabriel.”
One of the three judges involved, Manon Savard, gave a dissenting opinion.
Savard prefaced her opinion by noting it didn’t mean she was ruling on whether Ward’s comments were “morally reprehensible or insulting” or even whether the judge believes they “deserve to be spoken or should be denounced”.
The facts of the case simply don’t fall within the framework of discrimination set by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Savard ruled.
But, the judge added, “It should not be understood from my reasons that I consider comedians must not respect the Charter and the fundamental values it protects.”