Mike Ward: Understanding Discrimination and Freedom of Expression

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On October 29th, the Supreme Court of Canada decided a case about the singer Jérémy Gabriel and the comedian Mike Ward. According to the Court’s majority opinion, the comedian did not violate Quebec’s Charter of human rights and freedoms with his jokes about the singer who lives with a handicap. Why?

The Criteria for Discrimination

In Quebec, the Charter of human rights and freedoms prohibits several grounds of discrimination. For example, it is forbidden to discriminate based on race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or handicap, etc.

Discrimination exists when a distinction based on one of these grounds prevents someone from exercising a right or a freedom.

Discrimination often happens in the context of a job application, signing a lease for an apartment, or accessing public goods and services. For example, it’s discrimination if a landlord refuses to rent an apartment to someone based on skin colour.

Mike Ward Did Not Discriminate Against Jérémy Gabriel

The Supreme Court decided that Jérémy Gabriel was subjected to a distinction by what Mike Ward said. However, this distinction was not based on one of the prohibited grounds in the Charter. Mike Ward made jokes about Jérémy Gabriel because he is a public figure, not because he has a handicap. Therefore, Mike Ward did not discriminate against him.

What About Freedom of Expression?

The Supreme Court reminded us that mean or rude remarks are generally not discrimination. Freedom of expression also protects speech that is unpopular, offensive, or repugnant.

Nobody has a right not to be offended.

When one person’s freedom expression conflicts with another person’s right to dignity, the judge must examine the discriminatory effects of the speech in question, not its emotional effect.

According to the Supreme Court, Mike Ward did not violate Jérémy Gabriel’s dignity because his jokes, considered in their context, cannot be taken at face value. Mike Ward was not inciting people to vilify his humanity or to subject him to discriminatory treatment.

Discrimination and Defamation: Two Different Things

According to the Supreme Court, Jérémy Gabriel could have sued Mike Ward for defamation, which is harm to someone’s reputation.

Defamation is different than discrimination. To learn more about defamation, read our news story.