For the last decade, Canadian comedian Mike Ward has been involved in a legal battle over his right to tell a joke. This week that battle has made it all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court.
To get you up to speed as to how we got here. In a 2010 Ward made a joke about the voice of a well-known disabled teenager who sang for both Celine Dion and Pope Benedict. The young man Jérémy Gabriel, is now a 24 year old law student. Ward’s joke came from the POV that a terminally ill Gabriel essentially used up his goodwill by not passing away 5 years after his life expectancy was supposed to claim him. Ward joked that he was happy at first about Gabriel’s attention post-Papal visit, “But now, five years later, and he’s still not dead… Me, I defended him, like an idiot, and he won’t die.” Joking that he should try to drown him himself. Gabriel stated he suffered emotional abuse from Ward’s jokes that still linger with him as an adult.
This set off a series of lawsuits and hearings on various levels within the Canadian justice system in the years since. Starting with a 2012 defamation suits, then a human rights tribunal. A 2016 ruling ordered Ward to pay $42,000 in damages to Gabriel’s family. A 2019 appeal upheld the ruling but dismissed the damages fines.
With Canada priding itself on having progressive social values, every version of this case drew headlines that raided the debate between what speeches are covered in Canadian law. And now the even rarer notion that a comedy routine can make it all the way to the highest court in the land. Unprecedented is the word one might use with civil libertarians and artists backing the Canadian constitution’s freedom of expression provision and if The Supreme Court polices comedy it can ripple and chilling effect on artistic expression across Canada. Opening the door to future censuring of voices.
They argue that Canadian Constitution sets the bar for interfering with freedom of expression high and Ward’s jokes in no way reach levels of hate speech or other unprotected speech. While advocates of disability rights argue that comedy should have limits and bullying a disabled teenager should be one of them.
This week, this argument has made it all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court and the comedy world should be paying attention. Prosecution and defense lawyers presenting their case in front of the court’s nine justices with a ruling expected in the next few months.