Just for Laughs festival fundraising for comedian Mike Ward's legal fees
Comedian ordered to pay $35K for making jokes about an artist's physical disfigurement
Montreal's Just for Laughs comedy festival is throwing its support behind a Quebec comedian who was ordered to pay damages to a young artist he mocked onstage.
The internationally renowned festival will host a bilingual comedy show on Saturday to help fund Mike Ward's appeal of a Quebec Human Rights Tribunal ruling this month ordering him to pay $35,000 to Jeremy Gabriel for jokes about his singing and facial disfigurement.
Just for Laugh's chief operating officer Bruce Hills said the idea came from comics who wanted to support Ward.
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Hills called the ruling "a slippery slope" in an interview Friday.
"I just think it's troubling that we're meddling in comedians' material," Hills said. "It's concerning for me and it's concerning for comedians."
The tribunal ruled in favour of Gabriel, who'd complained that Ward made discriminatory comments about his handicap during shows between 2010 and 2013.
Gabriel, now 19, is well-known figure in Quebec, having sung for the likes of the pope and Celine Dion.
He has Treacher Collins syndrome, a congenital disorder characterized by craniofacial deformities.
As part of the ruling, Ward was also ordered to pay Gabriel's mother an additional $7,000.
Free speech or discrimination?
Saturday night's benefit show features a lineup of both French and English-speaking comedians and Ward will also appear.
Ward has alternately been portrayed as a defender of free speech and a bully who targeted a child with a disability.
Gabriel has said he's disappointed that Ward is appealing.
He said when the ruling came down the case was more about discrimination than free speech.
"In this case, freedom of expression is a false debate," Gabriel said. "When you use discriminatory motives that incite hatred, you can't talk about freedom of expression."
Fans crowdfund thousands for Ward
In a video of one of Ward's performances, he can be seen calling Gabriel ugly and wondering why he hasn't died five years after getting his wish to sing in front of the pope.
The judge in the case said two basic rights were in play: freedom of expression and the right to protection against discriminatory comments, ultimately ruling in favour of Gabriel.
Ward said on his Facebook page this week he was willing to take the case to the Supreme Court.
"This ruling limits not only the types of jokes we can tell, but also (and directly) criticism we can make," he wrote, adding it extends beyond comedians to others like journalists, bloggers, YouTubers and critics.
Ward also started an online crowdfunding campaign, which stood at nearly $35,000 raised as of Friday.