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The right to free speech is one of the most important rights we have. It's a key element of a functioning democracy, ensures minority groups can make their voices heard, and serves as the foundation for all the best (and worst) jokes.

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"Hey, did you hear the one about REDACTED."

But although the importance of free speech is widely known, the details on how it actually works aren't, to the point that when someone cites their right to "free speech" on the Internet it's an almost certainty that they don't know what that means and are probably confusing it with an imagined right to "have everyone be nice to me." So here, then, for the oppressed and oppressors that make up Cracked's audience, are five of the most important things about free speech that we always forget.

It Only Prevents the Government From Restricting Speech

All of the laws protecting free speech make it clear that it protects an individual from having their speech limited by government action, which is intended to stop a government from silencing speech it doesn't like. Recall that the whole point of a democracy is for the people to vote for their leaders and occasionally vote out their leaders. It's a lot harder to do that if every piece of news you read claims your current leaders are perfect. For this reason alone, the right to freely criticize our leaders is important.

Even when they are kind of amazing.

But none of our laws protecting free speech apply to authorities outside the government. Obviously someone outside the government has much less power to restrict free speech; they can't throw people in jail or a box with holes in it or anything. But they can do some things. Your right to free speech won't protect your job when you start shrieking obscenities at your boss during meetings. And if someone else has given you a platform to speak on, like a show or newspaper column, then they're under no obligation to let you keep that platform if they don't like what you're saying.

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On an unrelated note, Cracked management are a bunch of gaping REDACTED. Really, just cavernous.

It Doesn't Mean People Can't Criticize You

Imagine some maniac.

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And imagine he's standing on a street corner, ranting about mole people. Like how handsome they are. Something about their muscular buttocks, maybe. And while this guy is going on and on in increasingly uncomfortable detail about these hot, taut mole people, we all understand that there's nothing we can do to stop him. This is free speech in its most basic form. He's in a public space, not inciting violence, all that. But although there's nothing we can do to stop him, there's also nothing he can do to make us not mock him.

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On the Internet especially, this deeply baffles some people. They say something dumb, everyone tells them that they're dumb and to stop saying dumb things, and they interpret that as an assault on their right to free speech. It's not, of course, because no one calling this dummy a dummy actually has the power to stop him from speaking. The best they can do is usually complain to whoever's giving the dummy a platform, and asking them to take the platform away from him. But that's, as discussed, a totally reasonable (and legal) thing the platform owner can do. In fact, this is more a case of free speech working perfectly, than it breaking down.

The most hilarious thing about people holding up their right to free speech is how much it weakens everything else they've said. When the best thing someone can say about their argument is that it isn't technically illegal, that doesn't say much about the strength of their words, does it?

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So, if you're a maniac, what should you do if you're really sure of your argument about mole people sexiness? Keep arguing it. Politely, civilly, relentlessly. If your crazy ideas are actually right, like that one lady's idea about letting women vote, then the rest of us will come around to it eventually. Don't ever mention your right to free speech, because it just weakens your argument. Save that for when you're in front of a judge, because they'll at least take it pretty seriously.

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"We have to allow that mole people might be super-fine."

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Even the Government Legally Restricts It All the Time

The government, with the wisdom that we're pretty sure it must have, has determined that there are a number of situations when, no, it'd really rather not let everyone have free speech.

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"A lot of times you guys hurt our feelings."

But this isn't normally to limit criticism of government (except when it is). It has more to do with fairly specific cases where free speech stops the government from doing its job. Someone who works for the CIA, or otherwise has access to classified information, will find that their right to free speech doesn't extend to sharing that information freely. Which not only makes sense, it also increases the potential for slapstick comedy scenarios where the wrong DVD gets returned to the video store. Another example are gag orders, where the courts can order a person not to say something about something, like about an ongoing law-enforcement activity. If you work for a telephone company and the police provide you with a wire-tap warrant, they'd also issue you a gag order to prevent you from talking about it. Like, say, to the people being wire-tapped.

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"Before we begin, you're not an undercover criminal are you?"
"Because you have to say so if you are. Otherwise it's reverse entrapment. Detrapment."

In other areas, the government has been found to have the right to restrict pornography or stop speech it believes could incite immediate lawless action or violence, sometimes known as "fighting words."

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"Would you like to fight?"
"You know, I would."

In practice, although it's useful to remember these limitations, you're not going to come upon them in your day-to-day life unless you're like some fighting-words spewing, pornography dealing, telecommunications worker. In which case, wow man, awesome. Awesome. Sorry about those free speech limitations, but seriously man, awesome.

Free Speech Isn't the Only (or Even the Most Important) Right

Those restrictions that apply to the government aren't the only ones. Even when your speech isn't impeded by government action, you're still responsible for what you say, and a number of pieces of civil law will essentially prevent you from saying whatever you want. You can't slander or libel people, for example. If something is copyrighted, you can't retransmit that freely. Similar deal if you've signed a non-disclosure agreement or are trying to share trade secrets; once you've exercised your free-speaking muscles, someone else is going to exercise their ass-suing-off muscles.

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"Did you even read the case law, bro?"

So more limitations on our crucially important, fundamental right? How's that fair? It helps to go back a step and realize that although free speech is a right, it's not the only one, and that when it conflicts with other rights, it can and should be restricted. This is deeply confusing to people who think of rights as absolute, immutable things. But different rights conflict all the time, and we've got all sorts of complicated legal and ethical techniques for figuring out which one takes priority. For example, every person, even a dillbag, is generally considered to have a right to life. We can't just kill anyone we want.

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"Stop! Have you even read Kant's second categorical imperative, bro?"

And when we're putting all our rights in order of importance, we'd all probably agree that someone's right to life sits somewhere above others' right to free speech. Which means that we can't shout "Fire!" in a theater crowded with dillbags. Same deal with other rights. A person's right to go through life without the media calling them a dillbag lies behind our slander and libel laws. A person on trial for being a dillbag has a right to a fair trial, which can lead to media gag orders. A person being a dillbag in the privacy of their own home can expect the courts to intervene if someone starts spreading illegally obtained pictures of them dillbagging it up.

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A whole bunch of our laws are set up to protect dillbags, unfortunately.

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Free Speech Means Different Things Depending on Where You Are

Although free speech is embedded in essentially every democracy in the world, there are serious differences in how it's implemented, and the world is full of examples of free speech issues which look odd to our culture. But the biggest difference is probably the one between the United States and everyone else.

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Everyone else is using metric free speech now.

In most other Western countries, "hate speech," or speech which incites hatred or violence against a group or individual within that group, is specifically prohibited and excluded from free speech protections. In the United States, only speech which incites immediate violence or criminal activity would be restricted, and courts have generally been pretty strict about their definition of "immediate." For example, the kind of discussion and language frequently used to describe Muslims in some media in the United States is considered hate speech in other countries. In fact, all sorts of really vile speech qualifies as protected speech in the U.S. Advocating violence against black people and Jews? Protected. Neo-Nazis marching through a predominantly Jewish town? Protected. Burning a cross on a black family's lawn? That's protected too.

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I don't know if I'm really qualified to say which of these approaches is better or worse. On the one hand, silencing free speech for things you don't like hearing feels like a cop-out. It's not free speech then, is it? Offensive, irredeemable speech is, in the end, just speech, and can be easily refuted, exposed, or mocked once it's out in the open. Silencing it may not end it so much as force it underground. And to use the United States as an example, even though it protects really vile speech, groups persecuted based on race, gender, or sexuality have generally experienced growing prosperity and acceptance over the past few decades. So something must be working.

On the other hand, let's consider the example of Europe, where, quite famously, a majority used its power and the volume of its speech to belittle, mock, and otherwise spread hatred against a minority group, which led to some very bad things. If hatred of a particular race led to the biggest crime in the history of humanity, then yeah, maybe we should do anything we can to stop racism from spreading, even if it does mean bending another cherished right. And again, Europe and the rest of the world that has hate-speech laws have also generally seen improving conditions for persecuted groups. Something's working there as well.

So I don't know. I guess the moral is, if you want to be really vile, you should do it in the United States. Although another option perhaps worth considering is to just not be vile at all? Maybe try that out?

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Those ducks deserve to find their piece of happiness.

Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist and REDACTED. Join him on Facebook or Twitter to learn the dark truths he was prevented from sharing with you here.

For more from Bucholz, check out 5 Stupid Travel Myths Everyone Believes and 4 Reasons No One Laughed at Your Joke.

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