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This Week in Free Speech
The comedian Mike Ward appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada this week, the final stage in a years-long battle over a routine he performed from 2010 to 2013. Per the Toronto Sun:
A 2016 Quebec human rights tribunal ruling had ordered Ward to pay $35,000 in moral and punitive damages to [Jeremy] Gabriel, who has Treacher Collins syndrome, a congenital disorder characterized by skull and facial deformities. Gabriel became a celebrity in Quebec after he sang with Celine Dion and for the Pope.
In his act, Ward joked that he had thought Gabriel’s illness was terminal and people were only nice to him because he would soon die. Ward then joked that after he realized the child was not dying, he tried to drown him.
The Quebec Court of Appeal ruled in a 2-1 decision in November 2019 that Ward’s comments compromised the young performer’s right to the safeguarding of his dignity and could not be justified, even in a society where freedom of expression is valued.
In his testimony before the human rights tribunal in 2016, Gabriel described the joke’s destructive effects on his life, per Vice:
Gabriel, who could not be reached for comment, testified at the tribunal that the bit hurt his career and confidence, and that it resulted in bullying at school. In September, he said he tried to commit suicide after seeing the video.
"I was 12 or 13 when I saw those videos," Gabriel told the CBC in September. "I didn't have maturity to be strong in the face of this — I lost confidence and hope. It made me think my life is worth less than another's because I'm handicapped."
In an argument that I’m a bit shocked to see in a legal proceeding rather than my Twitter replies, Ward’s lawyers told the Supreme Court that his jokes extended “equality” to Gabriel by “treating him in the same way as other sacred cows.” This reasoning is very common among right-wing comics, like Ward, who hosted a show on Compound Media and appeared regularly on The Anthony Cumia Show. True equality, they say, means everyone gets made fun of. Several justices were not having it:
“Oh c’mon!” [Justice Russell] Brown said, interrupting Grey. “Don’t go that far. We aren’t talking about Galileo or Salman Rushdie, here. He’s no hero,” he added, referring to Ward.
Justice Sheilah Martin also reacted to Grey’s comments, stating: “We’re talking about somebody saying that they tried to drown a 13-year-old child that has a physical disability.”
Ward’s legal team was joined by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which argued that “a lot of comedy is in bad taste,” and Ward should not be punished for it. A lawyer for the human rights tribunal responded that the case isn’t about taste; it’s about discrimination:
She said the joke attacked Gabriel’s human dignity. She told the court that Ward’s comedy routine was widely available online, which she said was a “major element” in the case, because the videos were accessible to Gabriel’s peers at school.
“He was mocked and intimidated at school …. He also had to deal with the stress of his parents. Therefore, there were enormous consequences for (Gabriel),” Fournier said.
The court is not expected to make a decision for several months. Some in comedy have warned that a ruling against him would have a chilling effect; I find this unpersuasive given the specificity of the joke and the fact that it would be near-impossible to bring a similar case in the US, which doesn’t have a comparable human rights body. If it chills comedians into weighing more thoughtfully the value of a joke’s message—Ward argued he was tearing down society’s “sacred cows”—against the potential harm it might cause, that seems fine, but it’s also obviously not going to happen in a world where entertainers react to public accountability by doubling down and making lots of money from their martyrdom. Ward crowd-funded the cost of the judgment shortly after it was rendered, refused to pay, and bragged on Facebook that he had already paid twice the sum in legal fees and would gladly pay even more on appeal. Just For Laughs hosted a fundraiser for his costs and named him comedian of the year at its 2016 Olivier gala. He’s reaped clear material benefits from this ostensibly industry-threatening persecution.
Ward and his defenders have said repeatedly that it’s about the principle of the thing, but it seems to me the only principle they’re defending is unaccountability. For some reason no one ever goes to bat for empathy or compassion. If the principle they wish to preserve is that artists need the freedom to take risks, well, as I’ve written before, this is the risk. Ward’s civil rights have not been violated. He wasn’t arrested, like Munawar Faruqui, an Indian comic recently imprisoned for 25 days over jokes he didn’t tell. What happened was he spent three years encouraging an in-group to take pleasure in the suffering of an outsider, which the in-group did, many of them to his target’s face, causing his target to seek restitution in the civil justice system (well, a less formal analogue), ultimately winning damages that Ward was evidently very capable of paying.
I’m no legal expert, but as a layperson I gotta say that seems like a fair outcome. Too many comedians view comedy as an ethical framework to exact cruelty without consequence; it’s categorically good for them to experience every now and then some approximation of the damage their cruelty inflicts, and more importantly for their targets to receive some approximation of justice for the damage inflicted. Ward is still a free man, so free he could spend five years and tens of thousands of other people’s dollars on a vanity legal battle against a child. Has any comedian ever gone so far to paint themselves as a victim?
This Week in the Beginning of the End
Financial Times reported yesterday that private equity firm ZMC is in talks to buy Second City. What is there to say but fuck that! Owners D’Arcy Stuart and Andrew Alexander had a chance to make good on their commitment, after last year’s revelations about the theater’s longstanding institutional racism, to “tear it all down and begin again” by transferring ownership to the company’s employees. Instead they sold it to vultures certain to strip it for parts and leave its workers—the people who made Second City what it is—in the dust. Shameful.
This Week in Silver Linings
On the other side of that coin: Second City’s teachers announced yesterday that they’re unionizing with the NewsGuild:
Organizers filed for union certification with the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) after an overwhelming majority of just under 100 educators at the training center in Toronto signed union cards. More than 200 of their colleagues in Chicago and Hollywood filed for certification with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board.
The OLRB will hold an electronic vote next week. The process will take weeks or months in the U.S., where the NLRB requires mail-in ballots.
In a mission statement, workers in the three cities said they are unionizing to “guarantee equitable and just working conditions” and “to establish health and accessibility, diversity and inclusivity, fair compensation, and reasonable employment terms.” Their organizing campaign has centered anti-racism and intersectional justice.
Paul Bates, a member of the organizing committee in Toronto, said “a union at The Second City training center will go a long way to improve not just the work environment for our instructors, but also the learning environment for our students, who depend on a safe, accessible place to learn and clear lines of communication.”
I look forward to seeing if instructors at other comedy schools follow suit.
This Week in Public Health Risks
The comedy club Stand Up NY bucked New York health guidelines this past weekend to produce an indoor comedy show disguised as a wedding:
The club announced the show earlier this month, after Governor Andrew Cuomo declared indoor dining would resume on Valentine’s Day weekend and certain indoor wedding receptions would later be allowed as well.
The thing is, Cuomo’s announcement was that wedding receptions would be allowed starting March 15th, and then only with approval from the Department of Health. (A DOH spokesperson confirmed over email that this timeline remains in effect.) When I asked Stand Up NY owner Dani Zoldan about this discrepancy last week, he didn’t respond. Zoldan has told me before that he believes live comedy can be done safely, and indeed there are more masks in images of the Valentine’s Day show than I’ve seen in most images of indoor comedy. But as we’ve covered extensively on this newsletter, masks only offer so much protection when you’re indoors for a prolonged period of time, especially when people are taking them off to eat and drink and laugh, and especially when more contagious variants of the coronavirus are in circulation.
Masks are also meaningless entirely if comedians are hanging out without them at the bar:
If Joe Rogan is to be believed, Dave Chappelle caught Covid last month not during a gig but before or after one, from a friend who also gave it to several other people in his circle. The transmission risk inherent in comedy shows is not just the shows; it’s the socializing for which they provide a pretext. It seems to me that clubs emphasizing safety protocols in the audience while letting comics run wild don’t actually care about safety, only the appearance of it. This is why I’m cynical about Stand Up NY’s new partnership with Kamin Health to provide “working comedians” with “healthcare visits and Covid testing”:
That application form asks comedians to list three clubs they’ve worked at, a qualification that significantly narrows the pool of eligible applicants. The caption adds that for a comic to be eligible, “you need to be funny and we heard of you.” What about comedians they haven’t heard of? What about comedians who don’t work clubs? What about comedians who don’t do standup? I asked Zoldan yesterday what the criteria are, what form of “healthcare” will be covered under the program, and whether it’s intended to use Covid testing as a means of “clearing” comedians to perform, as that first post seems to imply. He did not respond.
This initiative is commendable in spirit, but it’s also inseparable from Stand Up NY’s history of recklessness and rule-breaking, and its intentions are undermined by the club’s blatant disrespect for pandemic safety measures. Healthcare is an essential right; the power to decide which freelancers get special access to it during a pandemic should not be vested in the management of a single comedy club. Anyone who claims that power for themselves, especially in such lackadaisical terms as “you need to be funny and we heard of you,” is not to be trusted. I hope New York’s comedians press Stand Up NY for transparency and accountability in this program.
This Week in Recommendations
I’ve recommended this before and I’m utterly biased about it but I really do love watching my friends’ Twitch show (and podcast) Raisin Man Arena every Sunday night at 8pm EST, one of a few things I’ve actively looked forward to over the last year. (Other things on that list: the vaccine; a theoretical new season of Rick and Morty; Godzilla vs. Kong; Zachary Schomburg’s forthcoming new poetry collection Fjords, Vol. 2; this thing the dog does every morning where he slowly comes out of his crate, does a full-body stretch, and then just flops around on the floor groaning for a few minutes until he decides to face the day.) I hope you like it too. Also I thought The Wolf of Snow Hollow was pretty good.
This Week in Wrap-ups
That’s enough for today! I hope you are safe, healthy, and warm.