In 1975, Quebec enacted the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Within this Charter, there are different rights and freedoms fundamentally stipulated with respect to citizens of the province. One aspect of the Charter applies to conflicts between individuals and the government. That being said, the rights and freedoms given are presumed to be of equal importance, unless circumstances dictate otherwise. This is exactly what was seen in the judgement ruled by the Supreme Court of Canada with respect to the case of Mike Ward v. Jeremy Gabriel.
Mr. Ward had commented many times on the physical characteristics of singer Jeremy Gabriel, a young man with Treacher Collins Syndrome, a congenital disorder characterized by skull and facial abnormalities. During one of his many comedic performances, he referred to Mr. Gabriel as “little Jeremy” and “the kid with the sub-woofer on his head”. The human rights tribunal and the Court of Appeal ruled that Mr. Ward was condemned to pay $35,000 in moral damages for discrimination. The judgment was then brought to the Supreme Court of Canada to decide whether artistic discourse can have the same protection as political discourse. Therefore, the Supreme Court had to decide which right is superior: the freedom of expression of artists, or the right against discrimination.
Mr. Wards argument was that since Mr. Gabriel is a public figure, he would be subject to comments about his physical character and his songs. He also said the comments he made were directed towards Jeremy as a person, not his disability. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of Mr. Ward (5 judges for Mr. Ward and 4 judges in favor of Mr. Gabriel in that his right to dignity was violated and not justified by Mr. Ward’s freedom of speech). In other words, the majority of the judges concluded that the freedom of artistic expression is more important than the defamation of a persons’ character. The test used was whether the right to freedom of expression outweighed the right to dignity, and to determine whether Mr. Ward’s jokes “incited other people to vilify Mr. Gabriel or jeopardized his social acceptance as a person”. Thus, the Court concluded that the comments made about Mr. Gabriel were not intended to cause others to mock him, therefore Mr. Ward’s right to his freedom of expression was greater than Gabriel’s right to dignity.
Since this ruling was made by the Supreme Court of Canada, it sets a precedent for any and all future cases brought to court having to do with similar issues. The main issue with this is that Mr. Gabriel was only 13 years old when Mr. Ward made those discriminatory comments about his appearance. Because he was so young at the time, and the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Mr. Ward, the question is now: what can we do to protect a child from discrimination in the public eye, especially when they are authored by adults? We cannot allow adults to make discriminatory comments about children, however when those children are public figures, the argument remains that as a public figure, rude or hurtful comments may nonetheless be expected.
After the judgement, Mr. Gabriel said “I would like to tell him how I felt when I first heard the jokes. That I tried to end my life, …How it felt at 13 years old…because a 40-year-old man said you should die, that you thought it was the right thing to do.”
Despite the outcome it certainly should not be condoned that ridicule and bullying is acceptable, and our hope at minimum is that this will make other comedians think twice when writing their material.
Supreme Court of Canada, Mike Ward v. Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse, https://www.scc-csc.ca/case-dossier/info/dock-regi-eng.aspx?cas=39041.
2 Paul Cherry, Montreal Gazette. “Supreme Court Rules in Favour of Comedian Mike Ward in Jérémy Gabriel Case.” Montrealgazette, Montreal Gazette, 29 Oct. 2021, https://montrealgazette.com/news/comedian-mike-ward-didnt-go-too-far-with-jokes-about-jeremy-gabriel-top-court-decides.
3 CBC News, Comedian who mocked disabled child singer did not breach limits of free speech: Supreme Court, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/mike-ward-scc-jérémy-gabriel-1.6229032.