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Canadian who mocked a disabled young man, wins free speech case

Jéremy Gabriel, shown here in 2006, was the subject of a court case that raised questions over the need to protect vulnerable children. Photograph: Plinio Lepri/AP

The Canadian Supreme Court ruled in favor of the comedian Mike Ward, over an 11 year-old-case where he mocked a young disabled man. In a 5-4 split decision, the Supreme Court ruled that jokes told about the singer, who was a child at the time, did not amount to discrimination.

The case received widespread attention, as it was seen as a test (or limit) for the extent of free speech in Canada. It began in 2010, when Mike Ward, a popular comedian from Quebec known for his edgy comedy, started telling jokes about child singer Jeremy Gabriel. Jeremy Gabriel, who is now 24, was born with head, facial, ear, and skull deformities. 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.

The stand-up act at the center of the case dealt with issues of race and religion. One of the jokes referenced Mr. Gabriel's disability and mocked his appearance. The family of the singer filed for a human rights complaint in the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal. In a 2019 split decision, the Court of Appeal mostly upheld the tribunal's ruling, as well as C$35,000 ($27,500; £20,000) awarded in moral and punitive damages.

Mr. Ward appeals din the Supreme Court, saying that it is a Free Speech issue and it "shouldn't be up to a judge to decide what constitutes a joke on stage”. Today, Canada's highest court ruled that the comedy routine did not breach the province's rights charter.

The decision read, "The impugned comments exploited, rightly or wrongly, a feeling of discomfort in order to entertain, but they did little more than that.”

Jeremy Gabriel told media in Montreal during an emotional news conference that it had been "an honor" for him "to have been part of this debate and to have had my say".

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