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"Were you born with a facial deformity, or are you just ugly?"

You would never say that to someone at a dinner party, but Mike Ward said something similar about a 12-year-old boy, in front of an audience of several thousand people.

Ward is a well-known Quebec comedian who specializes in what he calls "dirty or edgy comedy." His target during a segment of his Mike Ward s'eXpose comedy tour of 2010-13 was Jérémy Gabriel, a boy soprano born with a complex of ear and face malformations called Treacher Collins syndrome.

Ward was called last week before the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal to explain why he should not pay $80,000 in damages for saying, among other things, that Gabriel's problem was mere ugliness, that his bone-conduction hearing aid was actually "a subwoofer," and that his performances for Céline Dion, Pope Benedict XVI and the Montreal Canadiens were only bearable because Ward thought the boy's condition was fatal. "But five years later, he still hasn't died!" Ward shouted during his routine. "Tabarnak!"

If you watch the clip on YouTube, as more than 500,000 people have, you might conclude that Ward is in part satirizing a kind of sympathy predicated on knowing that the object of pity will expire soon. But he's also talking about an actual child, who testified that the comedian's two-minute bit had had a devastating effect on him.

"It put the idea into my head that my life wasn't worth much," Gabriel told the tribunal's Justice Scott Hughes during the first round of hearings in September. "For two years I didn't want to go outside, I didn't want to sing, I didn't want to go on living." He was mocked by classmates, he said, and invitations to perform dried up.

The media in Quebec have played the case as a classic conflict of rights – Ward's freedom of speech versus Gabriel's right to what the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms calls "the safeguard of his dignity, honour and reputation." The Charter also states that "no one may harass a person on the basis of … a handicap or the use of any means to palliate a handicap."

Ward and his lawyer say that Gabriel lost some of his protection against public ridicule when he became a known figure. "I wasn't laughing at his handicap, I was laughing at the public person he had become," Ward said in a radio interview last fall. But though public personalities in Quebec have a reduced scope for claiming defamation, there's still a big difference between going after a cabinet minister and taking down a 12-year-old.

"Did Mike Ward go too far?" has become the standard way to frame the story in Quebec media. The question is usually left unanswered, as if the ethics of a successful entertainer verbally abusing a vulnerable boy were a deep moral puzzle.

Under another piece of Quebec law, this kind of behaviour is called bullying, which Bill 56 defines as any communication "which occurs in a context where there is a power imbalance between the persons concerned, and which causes distress and injures." Gabriel's distress is not in doubt, and the power imbalance is obvious. Ward's latest solo tour grossed more than $5-million, and he has a wide forum for his views through social media and his frequent public appearances.

The comedian, however, presents himself as the victim, and as a martyr-in-waiting for the cause of artistic expression. His Twitter avatar holds a sword above the statement: "Free speech isn't free, it's $80K." One of his tweets this week states, "Human Rights Commission won't let me do comedy in Quebec" – falsely, since 11 of the 16 shows on his calendar are in his home province.

Ward has also been retweeting his followers' use of the hashtag #JeSuisMikeWard – a reference to #JeSuisCharlie and the Charlie Hebdo killings last year. The consensus in that case ran heavily in favour of the magazine's right to offend, partly because the complainants were so murderously unsympathetic. You might think there would be more support for Gabriel, given the discussion we've been having about bullying, and about the rights of handicapped people. But there's been no surge of sympathy, no wave of Ward fans who may have laughed at the routine but now feel bad about it. Maybe that's in the nature of his kind of comedy, which is about voicing mean, denigrating thoughts that few are bold enough to express.

What's missing from this picture is the kind of social contract that prevails at a dinner party, but seems to have failed in the public realm. The test of propriety has crumbled down to the bare level of what person A can legally get away with about person B. Anyone who objects is "dumb," as Ward said in a recent routine. That would presumably include the whole Gabriel family, including Jérémy's mother, Sylvie, mocked as a selfish stage mom by Ward in 2010, and still pilloried as such by his supporters on social media. She was the one who told Justice Hughes, last week, that Ward "destroyed everything we had built for our child."

None of this has done the comedian's career any harm. He was recently named host for the Just for Laughs Festival's Nasty Show next summer, and seems poised for a breakthrough in the English-speaking comedy world. If the tribunal rules in his favour, he can go on preening as a free-speech warrior. And his audience for that YouTube clip can keep laughing at how that ugly little boy refused to die.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that Ward's case was heard by the Quebec Human Rights Commission. In fact, it was prosecuted by the Quebec Human Rights Commission before the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal.