“Speech” is both directly a form of social action, and an activity in which forms of social action can be modelled without being immediately enacted. What we want from “free speech” is freedom to model action in different ways – to anticipate, consider, scope out, render imaginatively tractable the widest possible variety of situations and events. The usual argument is that any restraint on this capacity is a restraint on our ability to navigate the world, to deal with the unknown, to adjust and optimise and reconsider in the light of new information. But it might also be: restraint on our ability to generate dehumanising representations of others which prepare the ground for dehumanising treatment of them, or serve to justify that treatment after the fact.
Even as we understand that the social value of “speech” comes precisely from the absence of a direct causal link between representation and action, we also have a variety of ways of noticing when speech isn’t causally innocuous. Free speech fundamentalism often requires us to not notice these occasions, or to position them as always remediable through further discussion (as Judith Butler, with impeccable liberal logic, ends up doing in Excitable Speech). But the exercise of what Lyotard called “terror” – the forcible silencing and removal of disputants – passes through representations, even if it isn’t confined to them.
The defense of “free speech” often ends up turning into a defence of “free social action” (provided it can be categorised as “speech”) rather than of “free consideration of social action”. This is morally incoherent, but naturally appeals to dickheads, of whom there are remarkably many on the internet. Posting revenge porn on reddit isn’t “modelling” anything: it’s doing something, to someone.
I want at some point to go back and look carefully at MacKinnon’s use of Lyotard in Only Words, because while I think it’s a bit of a missed connection I also think that something interesting nearly happened there. Or that the reasons why it didn’t quite happen may be interesting in themselves.