Montreal comedian Mike Ward testified at a human rights tribunal hearing today, saying he didn't think a joke about a young man with a condition that causes facial disfigurement crossed a line.
More than a dozen comedians turned out to show their support for Ward, who is the subject of a 2012 complaint to the Quebec tribunal after Ward ridiculed Jérémy Gabriel in his comedy show, Mike Ward s'eXpose.
'It wasn't meant to hurt the kid. It was meant to make people laugh, which it did, hundreds of thousands of times.' – Quebec comedian Derek Seguin
Gabriel, who is now 19, became well-known in Quebec after he was flown to Rome to sing for Pope Benedict in 2006.
He has Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetic condition that causes disfigurement.
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In the comedy bit, Ward said at first he was happy Gabriel was getting so much attention following the papal visit.
"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.
Gabriel said Ward went too far in his jokes about him. He said the jokes hurt his confidence and his career and led to intimidation at his school.
"It was horrible during all those years to endure, to be a teen, to be a successful artist, with all those comments, with all those laughs. So I wanted to say that it's not acceptable for me and for my family. And I think for the entire society too," Gabriel testified before the tribunal Wednesday afternoon.
"When we make a joke about someone, about a disabled person, we can laugh, we can make comments, but we always have to do that in full respect."
It was the second time Gabriel testified to tell his story. He first appeared before the tribunal last September.
Gabriel's mother, Sylvie Gabriel, appeared before the tribunal Wednesday morning.
She was emotional as she tried to explain how Ward's jokes had hurt her son's confidence and career.
'You should be allowed to shock people'
When it was his turn to testify, Ward said he didn't think the joke crossed a line.
He argued that tastes are subjective.
"It wasn't offensive for me, but it was for certain other people. And I think you should be allowed to shock people. I don't think the social justice warriors should censor everything," he said.
He also said his brand of comedy is more risqué than others and targeted at an adult audience.
"Comics are supposed to do comedy. And especially if you're a dirty or edgy comic like I am. People who come see me are over 18. That's what they paid for. And I'm happy to see I'm getting support from comedians," Ward added.
Comedians watching case closely
Derek Seguin, one of the comedians at the hearing on Wednesday, said the case is of "high interest to all comedians."
"The kid was trying to become a public figure," Seguin said.
"He has to accept the consequence of becoming a public figure. I mean, if Donald Trump don't want to be made fun of, then stay out of the public eye. But is Donald Trump going to be able to sue me for my Donald Trump joke?"
"Hopefully, that's how the tribunal will see it."
At the same time, Seguin said he sympathizes with Gabriel's mother.
"Yes, it is unfortunate that the mother — the pain she was expressing in the courtroom was real — it hurts to have someone make fun of your kid, but I'm sure the tribunal will find that it's a joke," he said.
"It wasn't meant to hurt the kid. It was meant to make people laugh, which it did, hundreds of thousands of times."
Ward is represented by prominent civil rights lawyer Julius Grey, who has argued his client operated within the established norms of comedy, and the case against him represents an affront to freedom of speech.