A human rights tribunal in Quebec has ordered comedian Mike Ward to pay $42,000 in “moral and punitive damages” to singer Jérémy Gabriel and Gabriel’s mother, following a complaint made back in 2012 about jokes Ward had made regarding Gabriel.
Ward announced the ruling Wednesday night while hosting The Nasty Show at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival.
On Thursday, Ward told fans and followers on social media: “Même Rocky a perdu le premier, on va en appel. Even Rocky lost the first one, we’re gonna appeal.”
Earlier, he told the JFL audience, “I didn’t even know there was a human rights commission, until I got sued…One day the caller ID read: Human Rights Tribunal. When I answered the woman said, ‘Mr. Ward, we’re calling you about one of your jokes. We think you know the one.'”
Jérémy Gabriel, a singer with Treacher Collins syndrome, became famous in Quebec after he was flown to Rome to sing for the Pope in 2006, when he was 10 years old. Ward joked years later about Gabriel with a bit set up by mistakenly thinking that Treacher Collins was a fatal disease. Ward would joke: “But now, five years later, and he’s still not dead. Me, I defended him, like an idiot, and he won’t die. He’s unkillable. I saw him at the water park. I tried to drown him, but I couldn’t. Then I went on the Internet to figure out what was wrong with him, and you know what it was? He’s ugly, goddammit.”
Although Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms allows for freedom of expression, it also establishes in another section the right to “dignity, honour and reputation,” and further establishes equal rights that cannot be deprived because of social or physical characteristics, including disabilities.
Gabriel’s lawyer alleged that Ward’s jokes not only reinforced stereotypes of people with disabilities, but also led to bullying of Gabriel in school.
The judge, Scott Hughes, wrote that not all insults qualify as violations of that “dignity, honour and reputation” clause, but some do cause real harm. Hughes wrote in a 33-page decision: “A comedian cannot operate solely in function of the laughs of his audience. He also has to take into account the fundamental rights of the victims of this jokes.”
Just For Laughs founder Gilbert Rozon worried about the impact of the ruling, saying: “I think freedom of expression — like the assumption of innocence — is something we’ve worked hard for over many centuries. 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.”
JFL COO Bruce Hill went further, saying that the ruling could stifle expression of comedians.
“We want to book the premium comedians of the world, that make good judgments and do relevant material,” Hill said. “We want them to take chances. Maybe they’re going to cross a line, but if they don’t cross a line from time to time, what are we turning into?”
Ward continues hosting The Nasty Show at JFL through next weekend.
Here’s a clip from his performances at the 2015 Nasty Show, as rebroadcast earlier this year on Showtime.