Mixed martial artists challenge N.Y. ban on pro bouts

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Ultimate Fighting Championship and its professional mixed martial artists are hoping to take down New York state’s ban on their sport with a free-speech challenge.

A group of championship-level mixed martial artists and Zuffa LLC, which does business as Ultimate Fighting Championship, filed a federal lawsuit in New York this week challenging the state’s ban on professional mixed martial arts events. A central claim in the lawsuit is that the ban violates the First Amendment.

In 1997, New York passed a law prohibiting mixed martial arts matches and events. Sponsors of the legislation insisted that the sport is too violent. New York law provides: “No combative sport shall be conducted, held or given within the state of New York, and no licenses may be approved by the commission for such matches or exhibition.”  Under the law, mixed martial arts is a “combative sport” unlike boxing, wrestling or karate — which are legal.  Mixed martial arts supporters contend that the sport contains elements of the other, legal fighting disciplines.

Another provision of the law provides: “A person who knowingly advances or profits from a combative sport activity shall be guilty of a class A misdemeanor.”

When New York banned professional mixed martial arts bouts, the sport was just getting its start in the United States and was billed as “no holds barred.”  In 1996, U.S. Sen. John McCain famously referred to the sport as “human cockfighting.”  The UFC argues that it has since adopted rules and regulations to make the sport safer. Since that time, nearly every state has legalized mixed martial arts.  But New York has maintained its ban on professional events.

Jon Jones — the UFC’s dominant light heavyweight champion — is the first listed plaintiff in the 124-page lawsuit that also includes lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, Matt Hamill, Brian Stann, Zuffa LLC and several spectators.

The plaintiffs are challenging the constitutionality of the ban under the First Amendment, the due-process clause, the equal-protection clause and the commerce clause.

“New York’s extraordinarily broad Live Professional MMA Ban even prohibits speech or activity that in anyway ‘advances’ or leads one to ‘profit from’ professional MMA,” according to the complaint in Jones v. Schneiderman.

“It is unfathomable that in a world drenched in violence — from first-person shooter video games, to violent movies, to violent lyrics in pop music, to graphic network news — the New York legislature singled out live professional MMA as the one thing it believes sends an impermissible message,” the lawsuit states.

The plaintiffs argue that New York legislators banned MMA because of its violent message — something they contend is unconstitutional, pointing to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. In that case, the high court invalidated a California law restricting the sale or rental of violent video games to minors.

The plaintiffs also contend that a professional MMA match is live entertainment with an expressive element — akin to a play performed at a theater.  A key question will be whether a court will view an unscripted sporting event as sufficiently expressive to merit First Amendment protection. Plaintiffs argue: “Live professional MMA is clearly intended and understood as public entertainment and, as such, is expressive activity protected by the First Amendment.”

“Despite sincere legislative efforts, the ban remains in place based on a flawed assessment of the sport’s supposedly ’violent message,” said Barry Friedman, a constitutional law professor at New York University Law School and a co-counsel in the case, in a news release.  “This rationale is a patent violation of the First Amendment. In live events, fighters showcase their talents, communicate their convictions, show respect for their opponents and the art and tradition of MMA, and convey the importance of discipline, training and hard work.  … Not only does the law prohibit live events, but as it is written it purports to ban other speech including media broadcasts and coverage of professional MMA.”