A legal win for free speech in Canada

Victory for free expression and comedy at the Supreme Court of Canada

The Canadian Constitution Foundation applauds today’s Supreme Court of Canada decision in Ward v. Quebec Human Rights Tribunal as an important clarification of the scope and importance of free speech.

The case involved a Quebec comedian, Mike Ward, who was fined by the Quebec Human Rights Commission. The Commission concluded that jokes made by Mike Ward about Jeremy Gabriel, a boy who lives with a disability, were discriminatory and violated the dignity of Mr. Gabriel. Mike Ward was ordered to pay $42,000 to Mr. Gabriel and his mother.

“The decision is an excellent result which clarifies the test for discrimination in the context of a conflict between the right to the safeguard of dignity and freedom of expression. In particular, the decision underscores the fact that free speech has inherent social value and should be protected from unjustified state intrusion”, said Joanna Baron, CCF’s Executive Director. “Merely causing offence does not amount to discrimination and should not attract state-imposed fines.”

At the Court, the CCF argued that the test for discrimination should be modified to reflect the important role that freedom of expression plays in an open society.

The SCC adopted the CCF’s proposed test, finding that where there are competing rights under the Quebec Charter, these rights must be balanced with a proper regard for democratic values, especially the societal value of free expression.

The Court affirmed the CCF’s position that freedom of expression is not merely a defense, but also an internal limit to the scope of rights protected in the Quebec Charter. “It is not the role of the government to censor comedy through punitive fines or to decide what jokes comedians are allowed to tell.

This case isn’t about whether the jokes Mr. Ward told were funny or if they were in bad taste. It is about the notion that it is not for the government to decide”, said Christine van Geyn, the CCF’s Litigation Director. The full text of the decision may be viewed here.

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