Can Quebec take a joke? Comedy and human rights clash in court

“If I don’t have a lawsuit against me now, it’s not for a lack of trying,” Quebecois comedian Mike Ward joked in front of a Montreal audience in 2009. Fast forward to 2016.

On July 20, Quebec’s Human Rights Tribunal (HRT) ordered comedian Mike Ward to pay a combined total of $42,000 in moral and punitive damages to Jeremy Gabriel and his mother for jokes he made about them during his three-year comedy tour. The tribunal found that the jokes infringed on the plaintiffs’ human rights.

Ward’s lawyer has begun the appeals process and maintains that the tribunal misinterpreted important cases, going beyond the intended goals of Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

The ruling received widespread news coverage, with parties on both sides of the debate weighing in on the controversy about political correctness and comedy, the right to offend and the right to free expression. Many critics fear the HRT decision may set an unwanted precedent for Quebec comedians, while others argue the ruling is a just repercussion for jokes that discriminated against Gabriel because of his disability.

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