Canada’s supreme court ruled that a comedian had the right to poke fun at a disabled teenage singer, even joking that he wanted to drown him, in a case that raised questions about satire and the need to protect vulnerable children.
The 5-4 decision of the country’s highest court ended a more than a decade-long legal battle that had tested the limits of artistic freedom.
Jeremy Gabriel, now 24, was born with deformities of his head, face, ears and skull. He gained fame as a singer, performing for Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 and singing Canada’s national anthem at a hockey game five years later.
Starting in 2010, comedian Mike Ward poked fun at Gabriel’s physical appearance and his singing. Ward said people were only nice to the singer because they believed he might die. He also joked with the public about trying to kill Gabriel by drowning him. Gabriel, at the time a teenager, was bullied at school and committed suicide.
In 2016, the Quebec human rights court ordered Ward to pay C $ 35,000 (US $ 28,000) to Gabriel, as well as C $ 7,000 to his mother, Sylvie Gabriel. The court found that Ward had damaged his dignity and honor and had engaged in discrimination.
In 2019, the Quebec court of appeals upheld the finding of discrimination, saying that artistic freedom has limits, but annulled the award for Ms Gabriel.
On Friday, a majority in the supreme court justices wrote that while Ward “said some disgusting and embarrassing things,” the case did not meet the high standard set by Quebec law for proving discrimination, and that Ward “did not incite the audience to treat Mr. Gabriel as subhuman” when he acted.
“A discrimination claim must be limited to speech that has a truly discriminatory effect,” they wrote.
In their ruling, however, the majority left open the possibility of filing a discrimination complaint when an artist’s expression incites others to “vilify them or detest their humanity” on the basis of a disability or other prohibited ground of discrimination. .
The minority in court saw that the case reflected the need to protect vulnerable people from humiliation.
“We would never tolerate humiliating or dehumanizing behavior towards children with disabilities; there is no principled basis for tolerating words that have the same abusive effect. 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, ”the judges wrote.
Speaking to reporters after the ruling, Gabriel said he was concerned about the message the court’s decision sent to comedians about the use of children as comic props.
“I would like to count [Ward] if I weren’t here today to talk about it because [taken] my own life, how would he feel? How would he react? Would you talk about freedom of expression? That’s a question I would have asked him, ”Gabriel said. “What is the limit of treating children? I’m a little worried about the future because of that. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism