Pop Goes The News — As comedians from all over the world descend on Montreal for the Just For Laughs festival, the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal has ordered stand-up comic Mike Ward to pay $42,000 for jokes he made about a disabled boy.
The ruling is sending a chill through the comedy community and outraging advocates of freedom of expression.
In its 33-page decision released Wednesday, the Human Rights Tribunal said Ward violated the rights of Jérémy Gabriel — who has Treacher Collins Syndrome — with jokes he told in his act beginning in 2010.
“Unacceptable remarks in private do not automatically become lawful when delivered by a comedian in the public sphere,” judge Scott Hughes wrote. “Moreover, the fact of having a forum imposes certain responsibilities.”
Last September, Gabriel told the tribunal that being the target of Ward’s bit “put the idea into my head that my life wasn’t worth much.” He testified that offers to perform stopped coming his way.
Gabriel, now 19, was awarded $35,000 in damages and his parents were awarded $7,000.
Following the ruling, Ward vowed on Twitter to launch an appeal.
The comedian, who is hosting The Nasty Show at JFL, later said “every comedian on earth is watching this closely.”
In his act at JFL, Ward is telling audiences he will appeal the ruling all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. He joked he would drag it out until Gabriel is dead.
Just For Laughs founder Gilbert Rozon told the CBC freedom of expression “is something we’ve worked hard for over many centuries.”
He said: “I’m always worried when we get too involved in it, putting down rules, laws, over what we can and cannot say. It always gives me a certain fear.”
MORE: Ralphie May gets serious about life, death (and Trump)
“This is terrifying,” said U.S. comedian Brad Williams, who is appearing at JFL. “A comedian forced to pay someone who got offended by his joke.”
Calling it a “sad day,” Montreal radio host Ted Bird declared on Twitter: “The last bastion of unfettered free speech has fallen. The terminally offended now control comedy.”
Fellow radio personality Terry DiMonte tweeted that the ruling is “chilling” and “brutal.”
Steven Kerzner, the man behind Ed the Sock, tweeted: “Not a slippery slope, we’ve slid to bottom of it.
“So we’re not allowed to make ppl feel bad anymore? I’m sorry for the kid, but his feelings don’t trump our rights.
Comedian and radio host Steven Crowder said on Twitter that “any comic who watches [Ward] legally tried for ‘offensive’ jokes and still fancies themselves a ‘liberal’ is no comic at all.”
Others are just as surprised by the decision. “It is shameful,” tweeted @BCredos.
“I wonder if this ‘Human Rights Commission’ sues terrorists and murderers…or do they just focus on comedians?,” wrote Thierrion Kagan in a tweet.
“As soon as you say freedom of expression has limits,” tweeted @MapDark, “you have no fucking idea what freedom of expression is.”
Humorist Yann Rocq tweeted that with her portion of the financial award, Gabriel’s mother “can adopt a better looking child.”
At a show in Laval last March, Ward vowed to joke about Gabriel “forever.”
“I got sued for $80,000 over this joke that I had never done in English,” he told the audience. “But I’m going to do it tonight.
“If this joke is going to cost me 80 grand, I’m going to do it forever. I’m going to start doing it in English. I’m going to learn Spanish. I’m going to travel the world and do it.”
Gabriel, whose condition causes facial deformities and loss of hearing, earned public attention for singing in front of Pope Benedict XVI and Celine Dion and at a Montreal Canadiens game. At his show in March, Ward described Gabriel as “kind of a Make-a-Wish Foundation type kid.”
During his s’eXpose tour, Ward said Gabriel’s singing was tolerable only because he thought the boy’s condition was fatal. “But five years later, he still hasn’t died!,” Ward exclaimed in his act.
He recalled: “He sang for the Pope and he’s deaf. And he was horrible. Of course he’s going to be horrible. If you’re deaf you shouldn’t sing ‘cuz you’re not going to know what you sound like so you’re not going to be able to improve.
“So the joke I made was that this kid sang for the Pope and everyone was like, ‘fuck he’s horrible, but he’s a little kid’ and then five years later he’s not fucking dead yet. He won’t fucking die. That was the joke.”
In March, Ward suggested he’s been victimized. “The thing that hurt the most — well, it didn’t hurt but the thing that kind of pissed me off — is when I saw in the media people were like, ‘Mike Ward has no respect for the disabled.’ And fuck you, I respect the disabled,” he said.
“I respect the fuck out of deaf people. Like seriously, if I ever have a kid [and] he’s deaf, I’m going to love him almost as much as my other kids. Even though he’s broken, I don’t care. I’m going to keep him for the parts.”