For the past few years, we’ve been covering the story of Canadian comedian Guy Earle’s fight against a human rights tribunal, who levied a $15,000 fine against him for slinging “homophobic” insults toward a lesbian couple, who repeatedly heckled him throughout his set. Two years ago, Earle was ordered to pay accuser Lorna Pardy the money because of damages she allegedly sustained in May 2007, which is when the show in question took place. I talked with Earle after that ruling and he told me in no uncertain terms that he planned to fight it, and he did. Despite his efforts, however, this week the Supreme Court of British Columbia upheld the Tribunal’s decision. To say the ruling puts into question a comedian’s freedom of speech, would be an understatement. And a look back on the case’s history only further calls into question the validity of the decision.
In September of 2009 the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that the Tribunal should not continue with the proceedings until it was established if they even had jurisdiction for a case like this. The Tribunal ignored the ruling and proceeded anyway, saying they would hear all of Pardy’s allegations and then explore the issue of jurisdiction.
Upon this decision, Earle’s lawyer James Millar walked out of the proceedings, saying the Tribunal was in contempt. And Earle, himself, had never explained his side of the story to the Tribunal, claiming he couldn’t afford to fly back to Vancouver for the hearings — he had since moved to Toronto — and because he was awaiting the birth of his son. The comedian offered to testify via voice or video conference; the tribunal denied his request.
I interviewed Earle on April 23, 2011, right after the original fine was levied. You can listen to the entire thing below. Today, Earle sent a detailed response to Laughspin about the court’s final decision, which you can skip ahead to, below.
Here’s Earle’s response from today:
I am thoroughly disappointed and disturbed by the British Columbia Supreme Court review of the BCHRC process against me. I was very confident that the court of the land had the sense to see the fundamentals of this case but I underestimated the power of bad publicity. I was never drawn into a “he-said-she-said” debate. I believed in the inherent ridiculous nature of this claim to begin with. In fact, I have never offered a true defense of my words or actions because I never thought it necessary, as again, my lawyer and my focus has always been on constitutional issues. We are fighting for artists no matter what I said or am proposed to have said.
Truthfully, my complaint and companions were not “singled out due to their sexuality” nor were they “intimidated”. They were rude and obnoxious and threatened me physically, off stage. Their behaviour was unsocial when I was trying to defuse tension after a debacle of a comedy show; it happens. I never called them the ‘c’ word – my rebuttals were always in the form of jokes – with punchlines and setups; 1,2 and 3.
Now the Supreme Court of British Columbia has decreed that I am a liar. I am currently, six years, virtually unemployable – I am challenged daily to provide for my family. I have been painted a homophobic monster, which I am patently not.
Obviously, we have to fight this – appeal it – whatever it takes. This is a dangerous precedent to set. The bottom line is that any words uttered by a comic on stage can be taken out of context (or even fabricated) and put before an HRC member and if that member finds the material offensive, it will be deemed discriminatory. I have said it before, stand-up comedy is the canary in the coal mine of free speech; when they start locking up the comics, you’re next. Ironically, I am fighting for the very tenants that support the expression of alternative view points and lifestyles.
I played the part of an edgy comedic host to unruly, aggressive, unchecked hecklers. I gave them three warnings and they persisted, at which time, I opened up on them. They were verbally abusive to me, said horrible things about my mother, talked about attacking my neck with a broken beer bottle and made many more crass comments designed to hurt and belittle me. At one point, they followed me out to the road and yelled at me demanding to know what my annual salary was. Apparently, the complainants girlfriend was “more of a man” than me because she earned more money. It was a juvenile, tactless and hateful display of alcohol driven bravado of which I have been six years paying for in reputation. I am a perceived liability.
When I started into them, one of the audience turned to her friend and said, “Ya know, we could take him to the HRC for saying this stuff…” Imagine what kind of response that is going to illicit from a hardcore, socially driven, idealistic comic. Of course, I used this opportunity to try and educate them about the ethics and mechanics of ‘free speech’ at a comedy show, in the style of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin – “no holes barred commentary”. I was out-maneuvered by a wall of pathological ignorance. It can happen to the best of us, admit it. People, who haven’t seen me perform, call me a hack comic – I was upholding the essence of the principles of authentic urban stand-up. In a live setting, my retelling of what I actually said, gets a laugh EVERY time – but not in BC.
In fact, I didn’t discriminate at all. I actually, in jest, accused them of not really being lesbians – I suggested they were “drunk – in college – and experimenting” – same material you would hear at any comedy club. Had this show been in a proper comedy club, instead of a pub, the girls would have been thrown out after the third warning and none of this would have ever happened.
This was conceived as a quick cash grab that has ballooned into a full-on façade. Legal advisors will recommend paying a fast settlement over lengthy court battles but we could not let this transpire based on issues of freedom of speech, especially concerning the speech of a comedian on stage, during a comedy show and especially in response to hecklers. I will continue to fight. I have no choice in the matter; these results are against everything I have worked on and have taken away an artform that I have loved since I was a toddler. I’m grief struck and momentarily at a loss but the war wages on and we won’t lose it, no matter how many battles it takes.
I am unclear, at this stage, what my appeal process will be or what legal representation or tact I will employ. I am open to suggestion and comments of support. Email me at email@example.com.
What do you think about the situation, Laughspinners? Sound off in the comments section.