Free Speech Versus Political Correctness – When Hurting Someone’s Feelings Is Not a Laughing Matter

Should being an insensitive asshole in public cost you $42,000 plus countless thousands more in legal fees?

A decision rendered by the provincial Human Rights Tribunal here in the Province of Quebec earlier this week said ‘Yes’, when it decided that a segment from Mike Ward’s 2009 to 2012 French stand-up comedy touring show ‘Mike Ward s’Expose’ (Mike Ward exposes himself) went too far.

The tribunal concluded that Ward violated articles 4 and 10 of the Quebec Charter of Personal Rights and Freedoms part 1, chapter 1 – to the detriment of then 12 year-old Jérémy Gabriel.

Gabriel was a child singer/performer who is stricken with Treacher Collins Syndrome and in his act, Ward makes light of and ridicules Gabriel’s physical deformities caused by his genetic disorder.

Within the next few minutes if you keep reading, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that onstage anyway, Mike Ward is an asshole.

But the last time I checked, being an asshole wasn’t illegal in Canada, nor in any other democratic country that values free speech.

I know this for a fact because in the business world over the years I’ve met tons of assholes; so many in fact that if it was illegal, we’d need to build bigger jails.

Ward is a 42 year-old bilingual stand-up comedian and Quebec City native who has been plying his trade for over a dozen years.

His vulgar, immature, bombastic, often obscene, in-your-face style of stand-up works well here in French Canada. Don’t ask, it’s a cultural thing that would take too long to explain. But trust me, if Andrew Dice Clay could speak French he’d still have a thriving stand-up career here in Québec.

Ward for his part does speak French and easily sells out 1,500-2,000 seat venues across the province, performing dozens if not hundreds of shows per year.

As for his English shows he pretty much can’t get arrested here in Canada or anywhere else in the English speaking world for that matter, though I suspect that this is about to change.

All this to say that for the moment at least, unless you live here or visit regularly and happened to see posters or ads for one of his shows, chances are pretty good that you’ve never heard of the guy.

Personally, I’ve seen and heard parts of Ward’s act in both of Canada’s official languages. Let’s just say that I don’t care for his humor and find very little of it to be genuinely funny.

In their July 20th, 2016 ruling the tribunal decided that Ward infringed upon Gabriel’s rights under our human rights charter and ordered Ward to compensate Gabriel and his family for damages in the amount of $42,000.00, a little more than half of the amount of the original complaint.

Here is the offending segment (Note: for those who don’t understand French I’ve written a rough and equally vulgar English translation below)

Segwaying from comments about singer Céline Dion having sung for the Pope when she was a child, “There was one other Québec kid who was invited to sing for the Pope; little Jérémy.”

“I don’t know if you remember him, he’s that little kid who had that sorta sub-woofer on his head.”

“If you were beside him at the A & W drive-thru you could hear the orders better, shit it’s incredible!”

“So…he wasn’t as good as Céline.”

“Let’s face facts, to put it mildy his voice wasn’t as silky smooth, but hey he tried his best”

“And I remember in the beginning everyone wanted to compare him to Céline.”

“He comes along in the beginning and everyone was insulting him, I was the only one defending him.”

“He sings for the Pope and people were saying mean things about him like, ‘shit he can’t sing, he can’t hold a note, he’s terrible, it’s embarrassing’, and I’m like c’mon dammit he’s living a dream.”

“The kid is dying and he’s living his dream.”

“Let him live his dream that he’s had since he was little to go and squeal for the pope, leave him be, he’s terminally ill the poor kid.”

“Then he went to sing for Céline in Vegas and the same people again, ‘he’s awful, he can’t sing, it’s embarrassing’, and I’d defend him again because he was terminally ill and he was living his dream, fuck leave him alone.”

After that he sang for the Canadiens (NHL hockey team) and butchered the national anthem, and again people were all over him, ‘Christ he’s awful, he can’t sing, it’s embarrassing’, and even then I still defended him because he was just this poor kid, terminally ill, living out a dream, fuck give him a break!”

“And dammit, I defended him all the way.”

“Well now, here we are five years later and CHRIST! The little fucker is STILL NOT DEAD!”

“The little fucker just won’t die!”

“There I am defending him like an idiot and he won’t fucking die!”

“Hey I defend you – you fucking croak goddammit!”

“But Christ, he’s unkillable!”

“I saw him at the Bromont water park and even tried holding his head under water to drown him; you can’t fucking kill this kid!”

“So then I went online to look up his illness, you know what he’s got?”

“He’s just ugly dammit!”

It is estimated that Ward has performed this act publicly about 260 times. According to the ruling, the accumulated effect of this ridicule left Jérémy and his family humiliated, eroded the boy’s confidence, and even emboldened other children at school to make fun of him too.

Not many would argue that making a living by publicly mocking a child for a genetic disorder they have no control over is pretty pathetic, and that in this instance anyway Mike Ward can rightfully be considered a heartless insensitive asshole.

But the question is: Should anyone be forced to pay any amount for hurting another persons feelings?

The decision which Ward has already confirmed he’ll be appealing, has been playing out to heated debate here in both social and mainstream media since it was handed down last week.

Free speech advocates rightly point out that in his act Ward slanders no one. Nor does he incite anyone to hate or commit acts of violence against the boy – all of which would be clearly and unquestionably illegal under the Canadian constitution.

He simply makes fun of the boy in a way that any mature reasonable person would agree was mean, cruel, and insensitive.

But by deciding that mocking someone in this way is an offence punishable by a sizable fine, many argue that the human rights commission is the one going too far, and is taking us down a very slippery slope.

The timing of the decision couldn’t have had a bigger impact. Handed down just as hundreds of comedians from all over the world converge upon Montreal for the 33rd annual Just for Laughs/Juste Pour Rire comedy festival, performers and the international media are taking notice.

Agreement has been almost unanimous that if this decision is upheld, it could have a powerful and long-lasting impact on the comedy industry, and the right to free speech of everyone, not just performers.

And so the hand-wringing begins.

But where does it all end? Do we start locking people up who flip us the bird or swear at us in traffic, or hurt our feeling by making a joke about an ugly tie at the office?

Maybe it’s okay to make fun of someone but only if they’re an adult, because presumably they’re more mature and mentally stronger, therefore better equipped to take it?

Okay, but what if they have a handicap? Is it no longer okay for Eddie Murphy to make fun of Stevie Wonder’s bad driving?

What is appropriate and what constitutes going too far? And more importantly, how do we decide?

By it’s very nature satire has always at its heart mocked individuals and their actions, and comedians have always pushed the limits of taste and appropriateness. All the same, until last week it seemed the line was perfectly clear. With this decision that line has just become a little fuzzier.

The appeals process may take several months yet, but many will be watching closely to see how this plays out.

In the meantime regardless of what’s decided in the courts, Mike Ward has just been given the biggest PR boost of his career, and perhaps that in itself is the saddest commentary of all on where our society may be heading.

What’s your take on this? What is going too far, and when is it no longer funny for you?

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About Norm 2.0

World’s youngest grumpy old man & heart failure wonder boy. Interests: writing, woodworking, photography, travel, tennis, wine, and I know a bit about power tools.
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34 Responses to Free Speech Versus Political Correctness – When Hurting Someone’s Feelings Is Not a Laughing Matter

  1. reocochran says:

    I am sad to say, a person whose past babysitting charge, my responsibility and “part of my family” was bullied. Benjamin faced it for so long, then in his freshman year of high school he walked out of the lunchroom, past the football field and stood in front of a train. This unkind “comedy act” aimed at a person born with a disability or disease, should be not acceptable to anyone. I don’t like fat or gay jokes towards adults but minors need to have protection. The laws need to change to include fines towards those who joke meanly which to me is “bullying.” The high school senior who caused my nursing friend and her professor husband’s 13 year old “child’s” death was expelled. His age should have warranted some further action, but as his parents are my friends put it succinctly: “He will have to live with this for the rest of his life. That is punishment enough.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      Such a tragic story 😦
      You know I’ve always felt it was difficult to put limits on free speech, but I’m starting to think that sometimes society does need to intervene and tell some people to sit down and STFU.

      Like

  2. jan says:

    No country can possibly lock up or fine every cruel person. What he deserves is a public shaming and anyone who pays to see him and laughs should be called out as bullies because that’s what they are. Anyway that’s the opinion of someone’s whose country might just elect a bully. Gadzooks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sue says:

    Well let’s look at it this way… The child’s appearance and vocalization is “his” product as music producers etc ….if this so called comedian co- opted for his own profit then let’s consider his fine a royalty fee. He’s making money off it, needs to give to the “originator”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      That’s an interesting way to look at things Sue. Ward himself seems to have put an original spin on it too. I read where he said that he couldn’t ever hope to buy this much publicity for only $42,000

      Liked by 1 person

  4. joey says:

    I don’t find it funny.
    In an ideal world, the guy wouldn’t even make fun of the kid. In a slightly less than ideal world, the guy would discover the kid is facing harassment every day and just stop on his own. I’ve seen bullying lead to wrongful death suits, so yes, it seems to me, if this kid needs therapy and is experiencing pain and suffering because of what this man has said hundreds of times in public venues, then yeah, there’s probably a monetary punitive end. But more so, shame on him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      I totally get what you’re saying but in fairness I couln’t find any details as to why he stopped performing this in 2012. Was it becuase of the complaint? I don’t know.
      I guess my biggest wish is that he doesn’t end up becoming a top tier performer due to the extra attention from all of this. Even then, I don’t think it would last. His act is ultra-vulgar. He shocks just for the sake of shocking people; not much mainstream appeal in that.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Lynn says:

    I am all for freedom of speech but I do think this guys crosses a line. At some point, we need to hold people accountable. I would be interested to know if he was approached prior to the charges laid, in an attempt to have him change his dialogue? Regardless, you would definitely not find me in his audience!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      That’s a good point Lynn. I don’t know when the complaint was filed in relation to this show which ran from 2009 to 2012. For all I know it may be the reason why he stopped, or it may be because he had newer fresher material.
      No I don’t see myself among his paying customers either.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. joannesisco says:

    A very articulate argument, Norm. I found I actually had to walk away and think about this one for a bit … so many ifs, ands, and buts were bouncing around in my head.

    On one hand, this young guy Jérémy had become a ‘public figure’. Rightly or wrongly, public figures are susceptible to both the good and bad that goes with their public persona and they become fodder for jerks like Ward.

    The flip side of this is that Jérémy is still very much a minor and Ward’s routine was essentially a backhanded suggestion that he should die. That’s beyond bad-taste.

    There is simply too much of this kind of ugliness around and I for one am happy that the Quebec court has sent out a message that Free Speech has responsibilities.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      And apparently those responsibilities include elements not previously considered illegal. That’s what makes the decision so controversial.
      Mind you if he had just used a little common sense self censorship he wouldn’t have gotten into this mess in the first place.

      Like

      • joannesisco says:

        I’m not a lawyer, but I’m guessing this is not a criminal case, but a civil one.
        If it is a civil case, it’s not about laws and whether something is illegal. It’s about a dispute between 2 parties where one claims they’ve been injured by the other.

        Like you mentioned, it will be interesting to see if it is upheld on appeal.
        Although I hope we (as Canadians) never become litigation-happy for every slight committed against us – real or imagined – I do like the idea of assholeary being called out and smacked down. It sends a message that being a jerk can come with a price.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I think that considering what all is wrong with this world, this court decision should not be considered so problematic. Let him pay for his abominable taste in picking targets, fucker. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      Yes there are bigger issues in this world, but I still have trouble agreeing that speech that is not slanderous and does not incite hatred or violence against another person is somehow illegal.
      I almost wish that one day if he has children of his own…nah I’m just not spiteful enough for that; but maybe then he’d understand why what he did is not okay.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Dan Hen says:

    I agree with you , Norm . And one of the most disgusting aspects is that the (negative) publicity will most likely boost his career . There are audiences for such trash .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      Thanks Dan. I can’t remember who or what initiated the backlash that pushed Andrew Dice Clay out of the spotlight, but you’re right, he had built up quite a following at one point. Then almost as if someone had flipped a switch society suddenly decided he went too far and he was done.

      Like

  9. Scott says:

    Trump ridiculed a challenged news reporter. This kind of stuff goes on all the time and will no doubt continue becUse there are those who enjoy what he does and says. Dont give the abusers free publicity. That’s my humble opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dan Antion says:

    I find it sad that we need laws to address actions like this. I would hope that the market would take care of that, and that this guy would be facing 1,500 empty seats. While I don’t want to see laws like this, or other laws stretched to accommodate this, I think we have to expect laws to broaden as communication changes. 25 years ago, this guy would play to 1,500 people and, at best, they would try to repeat bits of the performance. Today, it’s on YouTube. Society’s appetite for vulgar humor is not new, but the degree to which it can become viral, is. I don’t have the answer, Norm, but this guy should shut up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      If I understood correctly this particular show ended its run in 2013. In fairness I don’t know if he stopped it due to the complaint being filed or if he just updated his act with new material. Considering the decision last week, I was actually surprised to find a recording of the offending portion of his show still available online.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. quiall says:

    ‘Free speech’ comes with responsibilities! Spewing hatred is not responsible, it is an affront to decency! This was my Daily Quip on July 23.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Individuals who pull out their cash to purchase tickets to hear a stand up comic should consider that the entire evening of fun and merriment is going to be making fun of somebody or something – that is how it works. This particular case is offensive to me as a human, but I’m not sure the government should need to regulate it. I think I should know enough not to pull out my hard earned money and give it to someone classless like this particular individual. This is quite a timely topic for those of us in the US because we are dealing with someone who says something tasteless every time he opens his mouth, and he’s running for office. He has and continues to insult absolutely everyone, no one reigns him, and his popularity goes up. This right to say whatever the heck we want to, others be damned, comes down to human dignity, and I’m thinking we are a little lacking in 2016.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      I agree Judy. I will never pay to see this guy perform material like this, but I don’t consider poor taste to be illegal.
      Some of the Donald’s bombastic talk did come to mind when I heard about this decision last week. However, in my opinion Trump has already crossed the line into slander by declaring Hillary a criminal who belongs in jail when she has not been conviscted of nor even charged with an actual criminal offence. I suspect that I some point someone may decide to test that out before the courts.

      Like

  13. Wow. I am not a fan of this guy for sure. I think it is a stain on our society that he can pack houses, but it is not up to government to legislate free speech. The court of public opinion should be his judge and the fact that that is not happening is a commentary on our cultural decline.

    Liked by 1 person

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