On Thursday, a Canadian appeals court upheld part of a 2016 decision against professional comedian Mike Ward, ordering him to pay $35,000 in damages to a disabled singer.
Jeremy Gabriel is a young soprano who has Treacher Collins syndrome. The condition is explained by the NIH:
Treacher Collins syndrome is a condition that affects the development of bones and other tissues of the face. The signs and symptoms of this disorder vary greatly, ranging from almost unnoticeable to severe. Most affected individuals have underdeveloped facial bones, particularly the cheek bones, and a very small jaw and chin (micrognathia).
People with Treacher Collins syndrome often have eyes that slant downward, sparse eyelashes, and a notch in the lower eyelids called an eyelid coloboma. Some affected individuals have additional eye abnormalities that can lead to vision loss. This condition is also characterized by absent, small, or unusually formed ears.
The physical abnormalities made the soprano’s efforts newsworthy, and in 2006 he managed to reach a pinnacle of his career: he sang before the Pope. That was the event which was used as the focus of Ward’s joke, which called Gabriel ugly and wondered why he wasn’t dead yet. (Treacher Collins doesn’t significantly diminish life expectancy.) The joke was that when he first heard Jeremy, he defended the poor singing because he felt sympathy for the kid and assumed it was a dying wish, but afterward he realized that Gabriel’s disease wasn’t fatal, Gabriel was just ugly.
Ward has pledged to fight the appeals ruling, which dismissed the judgement against him on behalf of the mother but upheld the one for Gabriel himself.
This is at the core of what free speech is, and one of the differences, historically, between America and much of the rest of the world – including other free countries. It is the social obligation of people not to be callous and cruel, but in instances where they are not making efforts to trigger physical harm it is purely social, not legal, and the concept of the free market is left to render judgement on propriety.