In a ruling that could carry implications for comedy clubs across Canada, the Supreme Court of British Columbia has upheld the right of a bar patron to receive five-figures in damages from a comedian whose performance she alleges gave her post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 2011, Toronto comedian Guy Earle was ordered by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal to pay $15,000 to Lorna Pardy, a homosexual woman who said she suffered “lasting physical and psychological effect” after Mr. Earle directed a string of lesbian slurs at her during a 2007 Vancouver open mic night.
On Wednesday, B.C. highest court ruled against Mr. Earle’s assertion that comedy clubs should remain special places devoted to the “fearless pursuit of free speech” and that the Tribunal’s decision would have a “chilling effect on performances and artists in British Columbia.”
Offensive, irreverent and inappropriate
Rather, ruled Justice Jon Sigurdson, while comedy clubs may swirl with “offensive, irreverent and inappropriate” language they are not operating in “zones of absolute immunity from human rights legislation.”
In May of 2007, Lorna Pardy and a girlfriend were at Zesty’s, a Vancouver restaurant with largely gay clientele, when an open mic night hosted by Mr. Earle kicked off. The two women decided to stay and watch the show.
According to the later findings of the Human Rights Tribunal, during the show Ms. Pardy’s girlfriend had merely pecked her on the cheek when Mr. Earle told the crowd “Don’t mind that inconsiderate dyke table over there. You know lesbians are always ruining it for everybody.”
Ian Smith / Postmedia News fileLorna Pardy enters the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal in Vancouver on March 29, 2010.
The line prompted boos from Ms. Pardy’s table and kicked off an escalating string of slurs and lesbian-themed quips, climaxing with a pair of off-stage confrontations in which Ms. Pardy threw two glasses of water at the comedian and he, in turn, broke her sunglasses.
As Mr. Earle told it, however, the couple was passionately kissing in the front row and repeatedly interrupting the set with obscenities when Mr. Earle tried to “shut up” the table with the quip “you’re not even lesbians; no guy will f*** you, that’s why you’re with each other” — thus kicking off the ugly escalation.
After a pair of agitated conversations with the bar owner the next day, the last of which resulted in Ms. Pardy screaming to restaurant patrons that the owner condoned violence against women, Ms. Pardy took her case to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.
In April, 2011, tribunal member Murray Geiger-Adams issued a detailed 102-page tribunal report that pored over diagrams of the restaurant, probed the origins of the weekly open mic night and even examined the Iraqi background of the bar’s owner (“[H]e was a member of both ethnic and Christian religious minority groups, and experienced discrimination himself,” it notes).
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Further complicating matters was the fact that virtually all of the testimony came from people who had been drinking, requiring Mr. Geiger-Adams to sift through multiple competing storylines.
In the end, the tribunal ruled that Mr. Earle’s attack had aggravated Ms. Pardy’s “pre-existing condition of generalized anxiety disorder with panic attacks, and caused her PTSD.” Long after the episode, for instance, Ms. Pardy said that simply hearing Mr. Earle recount the evening in a radio interview caused her to miss work.
When asked why she did not simply leave the establishment, instead of staying until the very end of the performance, “she said she didn’t leave because she was too shocked, and that she literally could not get up from the booth,” according to decision documents. As for the water-throwing, “Mr. Earle’s conduct had put Ms. Pardy in a condition where she was unable to immediately formulate a measured, or even rational, response.”
She was unable to immediately formulate a measured, or even rational, response
In addition to Mr. Earle’s $15,000 penalty, the restaurant was also ordered to pay $7,000 to Ms. Pardy on the grounds that since the owner had given Mr. Earle a small bar tab to host the event, the comedian was legally an employee. Restaurant owner Salam Ismail had already spent at least $13,000 in legal fees defending himself before the tribunal.
Mr. Earle’s lawyer, meanwhile, walked out on the tribunal proceedings early, alleging it was an “illegal process.”
In a Supreme Court challenge, Mr. Earle attempted to argue that Ms. Pardy “played a vital and highly dramatic role in utterly disrupting a performance by unpaid volunteers.”
“[C]omedy clubs are like no other places, the quintessential element that distinguishes them from vapid mainstream media is the fearless pursuit of free speech.”
Nevertheless, in the judge’s words, “Mr. Earle was not giving a comedy performance when he launched into his tirade of ugly words directed at Ms. Pardy.”
“In the end, this is not a case about the scope of expression in a comedy performance or an artistic performance,” he wrote. “It is about verbal and physical abuse that amounts to adverse treatment based on sex and sexual orientation.”
that's it i'm done with this world, you win political correctness you win if you need me i'll be in the den with my a bullet in the back of my head and a cocked gun in my mouth