Quebec comic Mike Ward in court defending joke about Jérémy Gabriel

Comedian Mike Ward speaks to the media at the Quebec Appeal Court Wednesday, January 16, 2019 in Montreal. The Court is hearing arguments about whether Ward, who joked of drowning a disabled boy, Jeremy Gabriel, should have to pay damages to him and his family. Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Comedians in Quebec will be afraid to make controversial jokes if a 2016 ruling against Mike Ward by the province’s Human Rights Tribunal is upheld, lawyer Julius Grey said Wednesday.

Grey sought to convince a panel of three judges on Quebec’s Appeal Court that a joke about drowning an “ugly” disabled boy might have been distasteful — but it must remain legal in a free and democratic society.

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Ward, a popular Quebec comedian, is appealing a Quebec Human Rights Tribunal ruling that his performances included discriminatory comments about a young disabled singer, Jérémy Gabriel. The tribunal ordered Ward to pay $35,000 in moral and punitive damages to Gabriel and $7,000 to his mother.

“In this particular case, if the judgement is maintained, no one will be able to dare to be a stand-up comic, because normally you make fun of things that are controversial — otherwise it’s not funny,” Grey told reporters at the courthouse.

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“If anything that is controversial can authorize someone to say, ‘I was hurt, I’m going to court,’ then we’re finished.”

Gabriel was born prematurely in 1996 and has Treacher Collins syndrome, a congenital disorder characterized by skull and facial deformities. Known in Quebec as “Little Jérémy,” he became a minor celebrity in the province after he sang with Céline Dion and for the Pope.

In the joke Ward told at shows between 2010 and 2013, the comedian said he initially thought Gabriel’s illness was terminal. He said he assumed people were only nice to him and letting him sing with celebrities because he would soon be dead. After realizing the child was living a lot longer than anticipated, he concluded Gabriel was invincible. He joked that he had even tried to drown him at a water park, but he wouldn’t die.

WATCH: Mike Ward plans to appeal a ruling by the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal (2016)

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Mike Ward appeals court ruling – Jul 21, 2016

Gabriel, now 22, has said kids at his school made fun of him by repeating Ward’s jokes. He said the stand-up routine made him question his value as a human being and gave him suicidal thoughts.

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A Quebec court judge, on behalf of the rights tribunal, ruled that Ward’s joke violated Gabriel’s right to dignity, honour and reputation, as well as his right to equality and to be safe from discrimination.

READ MORE: Quebec comedian Mike Ward to appeal order to pay $35K to disabled teen he mocked

Grey argued Ward’s joke was not discriminatory.

“Discrimination would have been if he wasn’t admitted somewhere, or if he was evaluated in a different way,” Grey told the judges.

Stephanie Fournier, a lawyer defending the rights tribunal, said the lower court judge was correct in his application of the law. She said the decision doesn’t prevent comics from talking about Gabriel or other people from groups protected under the charter.

“The nuance is that you can’t humiliate a person or violate their dignity … because they are disabled,” she told the judges. “Gabriel was targeted because he had a disability.”

It is not a matter of freedom of expression being less important than other rights, Fournier added. “The nuance, is that the exercise of freedom of expression should not violate the fundamental rights of another person,” she said.

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‘It’s a joke’

Gabriel said after the hearing that he doesn’t understand how his case could affect other comics in Quebec.

“I think that comedians are doing propaganda to make people afraid about losing freedom of expression,” he told reporters. He added that he is still living with the trauma Ward’s joke caused him: “It’s always with me. (The joke) stayed on social media and in the consciousness of people who saw the shows.”

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Ward was unapologetic as he briefly addressed journalists.

“It’s a joke,” he said. “I haven’t done the joke for six years. I wrote it 10 years ago. To bring a comedian to court who does dark humour, for a trashy joke, is like giving Vin Diesel a speeding ticket for driving fast in The Fast and the Furious. I find it disgusting that I’m here. I will keep fighting.”

The court said it would deliver its ruling at a later date.

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