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'It's a joke': Comedian Mike Ward appeals judgment in joke about disabled boy
Comedian Mike Ward's lawyer was in Quebec's Court of Appeal Wednesday as the comic sought to challenge a judgment ordering him to pay $42,000 in damages after ridiculing a young man in one of his stand-up routines.
“I do dark humour for a living, and I will continue to do it, even if the Human Rights tribunal wants to make me look bad for doing a joke about someone with a handicap,” said Ward.
The case goes back to 2016, when a Quebec Human Rights Tribunal found that Ward repeatedly made discriminatory comments about Jeremy Gabriel between 2010 and 2013.
Gabriel, now 22, has a congenital disorder with skull and facial deformities.
He became famous in Quebec because of his wish to sing, and was able to sing in front of the Pope at age 9, and also performed with Celine Dion and others.
Ward, one of Quebec’s best-known comics, created a comedy routine about Gabriel and wondering how he was still alive, before Ward supposedly realized that Gabriel did not suffer from a life-threatening condition.
The Tribunal ordered Ward to pay $35,000 to Gabriel and another $7,000 to his mother Sylvie Gabriel in moral and punitive damages.
Since the ruling in Gabriel's favour, comedians in Quebec have rallied to support Ward by holding a fundraiser for legal fees.
Before the court of Appeal, Ward's lawyer Julius Grey argued that Gabriel, as a public figure, was exposed to criticism, caricatures, and jokes, all of which should be permissible expressions of free speech.
Comics have a right to make fun of anyone in society, including those with disabilities, Grey argued.
“In matters of art -- and of course comedy is art -- and in matters of art, discretion given to the artist is enormous. It's only the most extraordinary cases that can limit that,” he said.
Ward is unapologetic.
"It's a joke," he said. "I haven't done the joke for six years. I wrote it 10 years ago. To bring a comedian to court who does dark humour, for a trashy joke, is like giving Vin Diesel a speeding ticket for driving fast in 'The Fast and the Furious.' I find it disgusting that I'm here. I will keep fighting."
If the ruling stands, many comics will start self-censoring their material, claimed Walid Hijazi, a lawyer for the Association of Professionals in the Humour Industry.
“If this decision survives, there will naturally be a chilling effect. If it stands, of course another comedian will be afraid to make a joke on a handicap person or a Muslim or a Jew or black, or homosexual. If it's not the comedian, it will be his producer or the company that insures them,” he said.
The Human Rights Commission urged the Court of Appeal to uphold the ruling.
For Jeremy Gabriel, it's a question of dignity.
“It was hard, all those years and I want to make a change by continuing this battle and by promoting more acceptance and diversity in society,” he said. It's always with me. (The joke) stayed on social media and in the consciousness of people who saw the shows."
The three-judge panel is now deliberating and will hand down a ruling in the coming months.