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The comedian had the right to make fun of a handicapped teenager, judges a Canadian court | Canada

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The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that a comedian has the right to make fun of a disabled teenage singer – including joking that he wanted to drown him – in a case that raised questions about satire and the need to protect vulnerable children.

The 5-4 decision by the country’s highest court ended a decade-long legal battle that had probed the limits of artistic freedom.

Jéremy Gabriel, who is now 24, was born with deformities of the head, face, ears and skull. He rose to fame as a singer, playing for Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 and singing Canada’s national anthem in a hockey game five years later.

Beginning in 2010, comedian Mike Ward poked fun at Gabriel’s physical appearance and his singing. Ward said people were only kind to the singer because they believed he was in danger of dying. He also joked in front of the audience trying to kill Gabriel by drowning him. Gabriel, then a teenager, was bullied at school and became suicidal.

In 2016, Ward was ordered by the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal to pay C $ 35,000 (US $ 28,000) to Gabriel, as well as C $ 7,000 to his mother, Sylvie Gabriel. The court found that Ward had violated their dignity and honor and had engaged in acts of discrimination.

In 2019, the Quebec Court of Appeal upheld the finding of discrimination, saying artistic freedom has limits, but overturned the award to Ms. Gabriel.

On Friday, the majority of Supreme Court justices wrote that even though Ward “had said nasty and shameful things,” the case had not reached the high standard set by Quebec law to prove discrimination – and that the Ward’s comment “was not making the audience treat Mr. Gabriel like a sub-human” when he performed.

“A complaint of discrimination must be limited to speech which has a truly discriminatory effect,” they wrote.

In their decision, however, the majority left open the possibility that a discrimination complaint could be brought when a performer’s expression causes others to “vilify them or hate their humanity” on the subject. based on a disability or other prohibited ground of discrimination.

The minority in the court saw that the case reflected the need to protect vulnerable people from humiliation.

“We will never tolerate demeaning or dehumanizing conduct towards children with disabilities; there is no basis in principle for tolerating words which have the same abusive effect. Wrapping such discriminatory conduct in the protective mantle of speech does not make it any less intolerable when that speech amounts to deliberate emotional abuse of a disabled child, ”the judges wrote.

Speaking to reporters after the ruling, Gabriel said he was concerned about the message the court ruling sent to comedians regarding the use of children as comedy props.

” I would like to say [Ward] if today I weren’t here to talk about it because I would have [taken] my own life, how would it feel? How would he react? Would he talk about freedom of expression? That’s a question I would have asked him, ”said Gabriel. “What is the limit on the treatment of children?” I’m a little worried about the future on this.

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