Canada high court backs comedian who mocked disabled singer

In a five-by-four decision, the Supreme Court rules that comedian Mike Ward did not violate the limits of free speech.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favor of a comedian who mocked a disabled teen singer in a long-running case testing free speech laws in the world’s second-largest country.

In a decision split five to four, the court said the comedian’s comments were embarrassing, but would not lead reasonable people to discriminate, as the singer had claimed.

Friday’s ruling ended an 11-year saga in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec. Most of the judges said the case brought by the singer had not met the high standard set by Quebec law for proving discrimination.

The judges wrote that comedian Mike Ward had ridiculed Jeremy Gabriel, a young man with Treacher Collins syndrome, but was targeted for his fame rather than his disability.

“Although Mr. Ward said some nasty and embarrassing things about Mr. Gabriel’s disability, his comments did not prompt the audience to treat Mr. Gabriel as subhuman,” the judges wrote.

Born with a congenital disorder marked by deformities of the skull and face, as well as deafness, Gabriel began singing after a hearing aid operation. A teenager at the time, he performed with legendary Canadian singer Celine Dion and for Pope Benedict XVI.

In a series of shows between 2010 and 2013, Ward said that people were being nice to the teenager just because they thought he would die soon. Ward joked that when he realized this was not going to happen, he had tried to drown Gabriel.

Reasonable people would not view the comments as inciting others to vilify Gabriel on the basis of a ground of discrimination prohibited in Quebec law, the majority justices wrote.

Ward can’t be blamed for Gabriel’s classmates repeating his jokes to taunt the singer, the judges explained.

Known for their sometimes offensive humor, the judges wrote that Ward’s comments “exploited, rightly or wrongly, a feeling of discomfort to entertain, but did little more than that.”

In 2016, the Quebec human rights court ordered Ward to pay C $ 35,000 ($ 28,280) in damages to Gabriel. This was confirmed by the Quebec appeals court, which said the mocking comments had compromised Gabriel’s rights. The Supreme Court decision annuls that decision.

“We did it … we won,” Ward tweeted after the decision was announced Friday.

Gabriel, now 24, told a news conference that Ward’s jokes caused him to commit suicide at age 13.

The ruling, Gabriel said, worries that children are open targets for comedians.

“If someone like a well-known comedian can say those things about a child and not be guilty or have to be responsible for those words, I mean, after that, what are we going to say about children?”

The four dissenting justices held that Ward’s jokes violated Gabriel’s right to dignity.

“Wrapping such discriminatory behavior in the protective cloak of speech does not make it any less intolerable when that speech amounts to deliberate emotional abuse of a disabled child,” they wrote.

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