So, you’re standing at the proverbial office water cooler in the lunchroom with some of your colleagues when one of them — the office comedian — starts making jokes about a co-worker’s physical disabilities. He mocks the co-worker for his handicaps, even imitates him, and wonders aloud why the individual hasn’t died yet. Then he announces that he made a YouTube video about it . . .
Meanwhile, nobody dares laugh. It is an office lunchroom after all, and the handicapped colleague is sitting at a table just feet away. As is the head of Human Resources . . .
Yes, you guessed it: The office comedian is summoned to HR, and fired on the spot. And the insulted individual is so upset that he demands the matter be brought to the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, which would have to determine if the comedian’s right to free speech overrides the disabled person’s “to have his disability, honour and reputation safeguarded without discrimination,” as Vice News puts it.
Few reading this would defend the office joker, at least, not openly. Everybody knows that it is very politically incorrect to carry on that way in an office setting. And I am doubting that anyone who fancies himself a comedian would do such a thing in the office. Nor would they be stupid enough to post a YouTube video mocking the disabled colleague.
Now consider what might happen to a media broadcaster if he or she mocked a disabled person during a news report. Yup, fired on the spot, followed by a public apology from the network and an out-of-court settlement with the disabled person, who might also refer the matter to the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal for the reasons listed above.
Get the picture? Most if not all workplaces will suspend or fire an employee who makes offensive, discriminatory comments about people. It’s not a question of free speech — because all employees of companies know that their free speech is limited, and that freedom of expression isn’t absolute and never was absolute and should never be absolute.
Indeed, everybody surely knows there are things you could say that could get you into a whole lotta of trouble, right? You could be sued, even imprisoned for saying the wrong things.
So why then do some comedians feel they should be exempt from the rules about mocking a handicapped person? Is it because they don’t actually have bosses and HR departments to keep them in check?
Case in point: so-called shock-comedian Mike Ward made some unkind comments in a routine about a boy, Jérémy Gabriel, who suffers from Treacher Collins syndrome — a condition affecting the development of bones and tissues in the face. The lad, now 19, had made headlines in 2006 when he was flown to Rome to sing for the pope.
In his comedy routine in 2010, Ward said he initially thought the boy had a terminal illness and that the trip to Rome was part of a dying wish by a children’s foundation, Vice News reports.
“But five years later, he wasn’t dead, he’s not dying,” Ward quipped on stage. “The little bastard, he’s just not dying.”
Gabriel couldn’t be killed, Ward continued, joking that he’d unsuccessfully tried to drown him once, and that when he looked up Gabriel’s condition online, he found that it was being “ugly.” — Vice News
A video of the routine was posted on YouTube, and a complaint was filed with the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal.
Gabriel told the tribunal he saw the video when he was 12 or 13, Vice News reports, and that it hurt him and led to him being bullied in school. He also says it made him feel his life was “worth less than another’s because I’m handicapped.” He even says he tried to commit suicide after seeing the video.
The Human Rights Tribunal ruled in favour of Gabriel two weeks ago, essentially saying Ward’s jokes violated the rights of a person with disabilities. Ward was ordered to pay Gabriel $35,000, and another $7,000 to Gabriel’s mother.
Some are saying the one word that got Ward into trouble was “ugly” — while others are saying all the comments about Gabriel were distasteful, if not discriminatory.
In fact, just about everyone agrees the comments were not very nice — and it is worth noting here that they were made during something called The Nasty Show.
And, apparently, a lot of people laughed at the comments about Gabriel during the show — people who wouldn’t have laughed at an office joker making the same sort of comments. And a lot of people are jumping to the defence of Ward and what has now become his, and their, cause of that mythical thing called free speech — people who wouldn’t have leapt to the defence of the aforementioned fictional office clown.
Ward has appealed the case, swearing he will fight the matter to the Supreme Court of Canada if he has to, and now has a crowdfunding site to help him pay his legal bills.
So, we’ll be hearing more about this case for months and years and possibly decades to come, because Mike Ward and all his comic friends and supporters don’t think he did anything wrong.
He — and all comedians — should be exempt from the same rules the rest of us must follow when it comes to making comments about people with disabilities and handicaps, you see.