The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that a comedian did not violate Quebec Charter rights regarding free speech by mocking disabled child singer Jérémy Gabriel for years.
The 5-4 decision in favour of comedian Mike Ward, previously found guilty by Quebec’s human rights tribunal of violating the boy’s dignity and reputation, raises a lot of questions about comedy, law, free speech and exactly whose rights are deemed worthy of protection.
Ward has a reputation for tackling so-called sacred cows, and he certainly pulled no punches in his insults against the boy.
The now-adult Gabriel has stated the taunts were taken up by his classmates who bullied him, driving him to the point of trying to take his own life.
We must keep one simple fact in mind – Ward was not poking fun at a disabled boy to amuse himself. He was doing it to earn a living and enhance his reputation for taking his brand of comedy further than others were willing to go.
There has been a growing trend in recent years for comedians to tackle subjects once considered off limits – ADHD, menstruation and heroin are only a few examples – but where is the benefit?
The word that once got WKRP in Cincinnati’s Dr. Johnny Fever thrown off the air would now be acceptable in a grade school classroom. Is the world better because one can now say “booger” in public?
One might argue that it may not be better, but it is undoubtedly more open and expressive.
One might also argue that there was a time not so long ago – back when a child who said “booger” would get his mouth washed out with soap – that it was considered perfectly acceptable to make fun of race. Comedians routinely performed in blackface makeup.
Every society has its “do not fly” list. Ours certainly does, race being one of them.
The slapstick comedy routines in which people got poked in the eye or hit on the head with a hammer – anyone remember the Three Stooges? – still appear to have a certain following. The modern incarnation would probably be the kids posting videos of themselves choking on cinnamon powder. For the most part, though, someone falling down the stairs is not considered funny. Neither is mocking a child with facial deformities.
There is a kind of vicious commentary that is mean-spirited and cruel. If directed at a person in the office, it usually leads to a lawsuit or at least a complaint to human resources about bullying and a toxic work environment.
One has to question why the same demeaning schtick passes itself off as humour if stated with a smirk and a laugh track.
Ward’s comments were not poking fun at one of society’s sacred cows, but bullying a disabled boy.
There is an old line, that freedom to swing one’s arms ends where someone else’s nose begins. Freedom of speech is far from absolute. Our laws recognize there is a point at which one person’s freedom to speak can violate another person’s freedom to live with dignity. At least, Gabriel’s family thought so when they launched their original lawsuit.
Most of us know someone who uses “I was only joking!” as a get-out-of-jail-free card. It might be the relative who tosses around alcohol-fueled insults, or the co-worker who uses water-cooler chit-chat to make that day’s target miserable.
Some of us let the “joker” off the hook by adding the laugh track, despite inwardly cringing. The brave ones call it what it is, either verbally or by walking away.
The courts have made their determination. It is time for us to make ours. We can continue to provide the laugh track for cruel comments disguised as humour, or we can stop the applause.
Where professional comedians are concerned, we can vote with our wallets for humour that is edgy and hilarious, but without mean-spirited ugliness. Mocking anyone, much less a disabled child, is no laughing matter.
What does one call a professional comedian whose jokes offend rather than amuse? Unemployed.