Canadian Comedian Plans To Appeal $42k For A Joke That Insulted Someone

from the canada-is-way-too-polite dept

Okay, okay, I know that Canada doesn’t have a First Amendment like we do down here — even if people like to joke about it being the 51st state — but it still seems quite bizarre that comedian Mike Ward has been told to pay $42,000 for making an offensive joke about a singer named Jeremy Gabriel. Ward is planning to appeal, but the fact that he’s been found guilty of a “human rights” violation seems ridiculous enough. To be clear, the joke was not a particularly nice joke, but still:

Gabriel became well known in Quebec after he was flown to Rome to sing for Pope Benedict in 2006. He has Treacher Collins syndrome (TCS), a genetic condition that causes disfigurement.

In Ward’s 2010 comedy bit, he said he was happy Gabriel ? or as he called him, Petit Jérémy ? was getting so much attention following the papal visit because he believed Gabriel had a terminal illness and was going to die.

Ward thought the papal visit was part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that grants wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions.

“But now, five years later, and he’s still not dead! ? Me, I defended him, like an idiot, and he won’t die!” Ward said, adding that Gabriel wasn’t dying, but “ugly.”

It’s definitely a kind of punching down joke that feels a bit overly mean, but there are plenty of comics who make their living saying outrageous stuff like that — which is funny because it’s so outrageous. In the end, the decision came down to a clash between the right of freedom of expression… and a right to “dignity, honour and reputation” along with “equality.” The court eventually decided that freedom of expression lost to the other two. The court was particularly disturbed by the fact that Ward singled out Gabriel and made fun of his appearance (apparently some other jokes about him were okay). In the end, it said he had to pay Gabriel $35,000 ($10,000 of which were punitive damages). He then had to pay another $7,000 to Gabriel’s mother.

Beyond filing an appeal, Ward is apparently still doing the joke in his act… but in the context of the new ruling:

“One day, the caller ID read: Human Rights Tribunal. When I answered. the woman said, ‘Mr. Ward, we’re calling you about one of your jokes. We think you know the one,” he told the crowd.

He went so far as to repeat the same jokes about Gabriel that were at the centre of the complaint from years ago.

Anyway, yes, as noted above, the joke is kind of mean, but it’s a joke. It’s how some comics get laughs — by saying completely outrageous things. Making that potentially illegal seems like a way to kill off an entire part of comedy.

Separately, what kind of world is it when you have a “right to honour and reputation.” Aren’t those the kind of things you earn, rather than get via a right? I’m not saying that Gabriel doesn’t deserve honor and a good reputation, but it seems like a strange thing to include that in the rights of citizens and seems like the kind of thing ripe for widespread abuse any time anyone is offended over almost anything.

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Comments on “Canadian Comedian Plans To Appeal $42k For A Joke That Insulted Someone”

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crade (profile) says:

Just a note that we are talking about Quebec here.. Those outside Canada might not realize that are a bit… “special”. They generally have different laws than basically everywhere else in Canada.. Including apparently having a right to “the safeguard of [one’s] dignity, honour and reputation ” (although not the right to dignity, honour and reputation itself) in their provincial Charter of rights and freedoms.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re:

They’re more than a bit special. While the legal systems in the rest of Canada and the U.S. are based on British common law, Quebec’s system is based on Napoleonic civil law.

We’re dealing with a comedian who not only made a comedy routine about a very real 12-year-old’s physical disfigurement, but joked about trying to murder him. Who joked about a 9-year-old who disappeared and was later found dead. And who would end routines with “If I don’t have a lawsuit against me now, it’s not for a lack of trying.”

I’d argue that the Quebec’s civil law result isn’t so much a worse alternative to that from common law, but a preferable alternative to Texas law’s “He needed killin’.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Louisiana also uses the Code Napoléon.

Wikipedia: Law of Louisiana

 . . .
Despite popular myth that the Louisiana Civil Code derives from the Napoleonic Code, the similarities are because both stem from common sources. The Napoleonic Code was not enacted in France until 1804, one year after the Louisiana Purchase. Historians in 1941 and 1965 discovered original notes of the 1808 Louisiana editors who stated their goal was to base Louisiana law on Spanish law and who make no mention of the Napoleonic code. Thus the main source of Louisiana jurisprudence was Spanish, along with much older French laws. . . .

(Footnotes omitted.)

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I agree with your second paragraph.

As for the rest, there are plenty of examples of American lawmakers granting themselves exemptions to the First Amendment. And occasionally even the Bill of Rights, often by declaring “it doesn’t apply to them.”

(Slavery, for the longest time. Current imprisonment without trial and even torture so long as the victim is held offshore. Puerto Ricans being made US citizens so that they could be used as WWI cannon fodder without political consequences, but even today not given the voting and federal government representation rights of citizens.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Quebec’s system is based on Napoleonic civil law.

In 1759, the British, under Wolfe, defeated the French, under Montcalm, in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. In 1763, the Treaty of Paris concluded the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War in the North American colonies), and resulted in the formal cession of New France to Great Britain.

Following those events, for context, I should briefly mention firstly, the further hostilities which took place in North America from 1775–1783, as well as mentioning secondly, on the other side of the Atlantic, the French revolutionary period beginning 1789 through the establishment of the First French Republic, and its replacement by the First French Empire with the crowning of L’Empereur des Français Napoleon I in May 1804.

It wasn’t until 1804, that the Code Napoléon was established in France.

The Code Napoléon was not ever established in British North America.

(Incidentally, I have a somewhat similar —although more abbreviated— comment regarding the history of Louisiana law waiting in the moderation queue here. Eventually, I expect that comment will show up. Meanwhile, y’all can look up that history over at Wikipedia, by yourselves).

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I verified that Quebec’s system is based on Napoleonic civil law before I posted.

But if you want to be pedantic:

– Like Napoleonic civil law, Quebec / New France’s original laws were based on the customary laws of France going back to the middle ages.

– In 1774 the British Parliament passed the Quebec Act which preserved French civil law for private law while keeping and reserving English common law for public law including criminal prosecution.

– In 1866 this system was replaced by the Civil Code of Lower Canada, based on the Napoleonic code.

– In turn, that system was replaced in 1994 by the Civil Code of Quebec. Essentially still the Napoleonic code-based Civil Code of Lower Canada, but with changes reflecting Canada’s new Charter of human rights and freedoms. Plus changes inspired by some of the modernizations made elsewhere to the 1804 Napoleonic code.

Ninja (profile) says:

The right answer to the joke would be: “Dude, your momma is so ugly that I look like very successful offspring of a supermodel and an angel compared to her.”, everybody laughs, gets some drinks, go for a toast and call it a day.

I once had a terrible kidney stone, which made me feel a lot of empathy for mothers, and I spent the parts where I wasn’t in fetal position in pain joking about myself and how I’d open a quarry some day. There’s this friend of mine that has some malformation in his legs (though he can ‘walk’ with supports) and we always make jokes about his condition (I often get called names or reminded of the size of my head or how fat my momma is). Among other jokes when people have some issue. Makes things lighter.

The joke may be generally bad but if it was meant as a joke then at worst you just tell the person how awful it was and call it a day.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The right answer to the joke would be…

Jokes, and their answers depend on cultural context. There are no absolute right answers.

Consider: Back in the nineteenth century, whether one was in Quebec, or in Baton Rouge, Lousiana —or in almost any place in between— an outrageous and intolerable “joke” would have resulted in a duel, and very possibly a death as a result of that duel.

Cultural context.

Anonmylous says:

What the everloving hell...

Equality, your Honor? Really? Since when is it a crime to be an asshole? I mean sure, this guy did it on a stage, in front of a limited audience. But its still just being an asshole, and even in Quebec, that’s not illegal. But now every Tom, Ric, and Henri who gets offended when someone is an asshole to them is gonna clog up the courts with complaints.

Also, SEVEN THOUSAND to his mom? That’s just ridiculous, I mean SHE’S the one who failed to drown him when she realized he was gonna grow up so ugly!

(please note, i have no idea who we’re talking about, i did not google him, i don’t even care. That’s because this is a joke, a satire, a comedy, and protected under the First Amendment of the United States of America.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What the everloving hell...

(… protected under the First Amendment of the United States of America.)

Well, let’s suppose that instead of in Québec imagine that this was taking place down in New Orleans.

I’ve heard that the cops down in La Nouvelle-Orléans are so… so entrepeneurial… that you can hire them to administer a physical beating to someone who ought to get one. And for far less money than you might think, too. Now is that merely a vicious rumor? A joke?

Going just a little bit further south, well, they find bodies floating out in the Gulf of Mexico from time to time, don’t they? But those are just shrimpers who fell overboard. Or maybe oil riggers who just took the wrong step at night working on an offshore platform.

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s definitely a kind of punching down joke that feels a bit overly mean

Yep. #1 Rule in Comedy:
Don’t. Punch. Down.

People love an underdog but they abhor a villain. If you want to punch down exaggerate to make the joke more… insane and over the top.

I know, I know… Political Correctness gone crazy. We all have to laugh at ourselves once and a while, but we also have to be conscious of others feelings as well sometimes. Sheish, never realized how rough comedians have it.

Ben (profile) says:

Advertising by another name

A singer sues about a joke that he considers “offensive”. A joke only a few people (hundreds? maybe fewer) have heard. Streisand effect will now make this joke even more wide spread. You can’t really buy this much advertising.

… I’m just not sure if it is advertising for the comedian or for the singer.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Advertising by another name

Bad for the singer, mixed for the comedian. Some people will find it offensive. But still maybe if he actually loses he can consider it an investment?

Reminds me of a case here in Brazil where a comedian (Rafinha Bastos if memory serves) said he would “do” Wanessa Camargo (somewhat famous singer here and generally beautiful), her mother and her daughter (she was pregnant at the time). I personally laughed hard but she and her husband weren’t amused and sued the comedian for defamation or something in that line and he lost and was forbidden from mentioning any of them. Obviously he managed to keep joking even harder without mentioning their names and the case got really famous here. Censorship at its best.

mattshow (profile) says:

Okay, okay, I know that Canada doesn’t have a First Amendment like we do down here…

Uh, we DO have a constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression. It’s section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms:

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
(d) freedom of association.

The “right to dignity” comes from Quebec’s own, provincial level Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

Unfortnately my French isn’t good enough to read the decision and work out how they managed to decide the right to dignity from Quebec’s Charter trumped the right to freedom of expression in the national Charter, but I look forward to the appeal.

Anon says:

Of course not...

Canada has no freedom of speech. It’s not just Quebec. Anyone who doubts that, loogoogle the trial of David Ahenikiw. In the USA, nobody could be charged by the government for saying “Jews control the world”. In Canada, apparently, you can. Hate law trumps freedom of speech. It’s a short step from prosecuting socially unacceptable trash to prosecuting (as we see with the comedian here) simply bad taste jokes.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Of course not...

Canada has no freedom of speech

Just to be clear, the end result was that Ahenakew was eventually acquitted. Yes, he was charged and convicted, but acquitted on appeal.

It was a new law, and like new laws in the U.S they get over-applied until they get tested in court. In this case the law was thoroughly neutered. He or someone else could repeat his performance – get up on stage in Canada for an unrelated matter, instead go on a long rant calling Jews a disease and praising Hitler for genocide, double down on the claims to reporters after – and they won’t be charged.

That’s hardly “no freedom of speech.” Heck, I even publicly questioned Donald Trump’s presidential suitability the other day.

John David Galt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Of course not...

He or someone else could repeat his performance – get up on stage in Canada for an unrelated matter, instead go on a long rant calling Jews a disease and praising Hitler for genocide, double down on the claims to reporters after – and they won’t be charged.

I doubt that prediction. Laws like this are what cops use to give a hard time to people they disagree with. If you can afford a good lawyer you’ll probably beat the rap – but by then you’ll have lost your job, marriage, kids, home, and retirement savings, with no way to get any of them back.

This is a good example of why loser-pays is needed, and needs to be good against government.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

(I know nothing of this specific case, so am speaking generally)

I don’t think the issue is whether or not terrible speech has some form of punishment as much as whether that punishment should be imposed by the government.

But this is a cultural question, really. As an American, I’m in no position to criticize the balance other nations choose.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Mike missed the part where the kid tried to take his own life after the joke made him a laughingstock at his school. A twelve year old kid wanted to die because of that joke. Is that really the kind of speech that shouldn’t have some form of punishment?

It has punishment in the form of public reprehension at the person making such a joke.

But to answer your question more specifically: No, actually, I don’t think someone trying to commit suicide should impact anyone else’s punishment. There are many factors that go into why someone decided to commit suicide. It’s why we were against punishment in the Lori Drew case. It’s why — unlike many others — we’ve resisted blaming the government for Aaron Swartz’s suicide.

When you say that someone else can get in trouble because someone they were mean to committed suicide YOU’RE ENCOURAGING SUICIDE, because that’s telling people “if I kill myself, that’s a way to really get back at whoever was mean to me.”

Don’t do that.

No one knows why anyone finally makes a decision to try to kill themselves, but under your rules, if I said that your comment made me so distressed that I tried to kill myself, do you think you should be punished? We should never punish someone for the way someone else felt about what they said.

Dingledore the Flabberghaster says:

Re: Re: Re:

someone they were mean to

Lets all go and pick a kid leaving a disabled school and laugh in their faces. Every day.

I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you, but I do think your are woefully disregarding the effects of stress, depression, and mental illness as a whole. That’s disappointing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Yet even if you do ridicule that kid, if he/she has a good enough support system and/or self confidence your mocking will not drive the individual to suicide. You will just come off as a jerk and society will start mocking you.

There are many things that influence a person to commit suicide. So punishing others for the end result is not going to stop the amount of bullying or suicides that occur.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I will admit I have bias in this regard as I was bullied mercilessly growing up and as I currently can’t see how this would encourage suicide considering the many ways society discourages suicide. And I would like to think a judge would be able to discern between a single instance of criticism and a base insult repeated a hundred times. It was part of his act for months.

As well, The Human Rights Tribunal system in Canada is an arraignment more similar to civil court than criminal court inasmuch as the comic isn’t going to see any jail time but a fine, and not even a fine payable to the government, but to the individuals named in the complaint. Just like civil court.

Finally, I do remember you saying that as long as we don’t lie about calling it censorship, we can have a reasonable discussion about censorship. I know I’m calling for censorship, but already the right to freedom of speech isn’t absolute. We’re not allowed to libel, slander, or make direct calls for violence without facing punishment in both Canada and the US. No one would consider those unreasonable censorship so I do think a reasonable definition of verbal abuse can and should be debated. (And debated a lot better and a lot more extensively than some of the rushed anti-bullying laws that currently exist in some parts of the country.)

At the same time, I’m not sure if it truly is censorship since, like I said, the comic won’t be jailed, nor do I believe he was explicitly enjoined from continuing to recite his joke since the damage is already done. And I can still find copies of the video of his offending routine inside Canada, though I’m not inside Quebec so I can’t say for certain it wasn’t blocked.

Dingledore the Flabberghaster says:

Not neccesarily disagreeing with people

but I have a question.

It’s becoming more and more accepted that mental illness is a massive problem in the world and affects a large proportion of people.

So why do people think it’s correct that physical assault should be illegal, but verbal/psychological assault (essentially bullying) should not?

Freedom of the press makes sense.
The right to offend is ugly, but makes sense.

But to protect the right to publicly highlight a potentially vulnerable individual and encourage conversations about that person that will result in the offending words being repeated – that’s a good thing because..? Collateral damage?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not neccesarily disagreeing with people

Something to consider:

The cause and effect of someone physically abusing or assaulting, etc. Are very straight forward and logical to prove and see. I hit you and left a mark. All the world can see a mark there therefore the victim can easily prove I caused the abuse.

With mental illness, there is not an easy way to prove that cause and effect. Sure I mentally abused you but prove the end effects of the abuse was from me and not someone/something else or even self-inflicted or genetics.

I’m not excusing mental abuse as there is some cause and effect that can be proved but there is also a lot we still don’t know because it is out of the visual/physical realm.

I think laws just haven’t caught up yet to where they need to be but it’s not like society approves mental and verbal abuse while it disapproves physical abuse.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Not neccesarily disagreeing with people

“So why do people think it’s correct that physical assault should be illegal, but verbal/psychological assault (essentially bullying) should not?”

Can you imagine the madness that would result if we treated low-level verbal or psychological “assault” as illegal? It would result in a society where people have to avoid interacting with each other out of self-protection. It’s awfully easy to hurt someone’s feelings without even knowing that you have.

But there does exist genuine and unambiguous verbal and psychological assault and, in the US anyway, that is illegal. It just has to rise to a very serious level, or happen in certain narrow circumstances.

Personally, I think that’s a reasonable balance. We shouldn’t make low-level verbal/psychological abuse illegal for a number of reasons.

In effect, such a law restricts Constitutionally protected activity. As such, the amount of harm the activity causes must be greater than the amount of harm that such a law would cause to overall freedom and society.

Measuring that harm is very difficult, though. Physical or property-related harm has an easy and objective method of being measured: money. Psychological harm has no such method. That means that we have made up a set of guidelines for how bad it has to be before we call it actionably harmful. It makes sense to me that the guidelines would only cover acts that are so egregious that the harm is pretty obvious.

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