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Lawsuit Filed To End New York’s Live Professional MMA Ban

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), through its parent company Zuffa, LLC has filed a Complaint (along with a variety of popular Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters, people who cover the sport on websites, trainers, and others named as Plaintiffs) in the U.S. District Court Southern District of New York.  The gist of the Complaint is revealed in Paragraph 3 of the Complaint (which has a total of 316 paragraphs, not including exhibits).  Paragraph 3 begins by stating, “Despite the huge popularity of MMA across this country and throughout the world, live professional MMA matches remain illegal in the State of New York.”  What we have here is a long-winded pleading by the UFC and its fighters, who are seeking a change to NY law so that live professional MMA matches may be held within that state and a variety of professionals may legally “profit” on the “advancement” of professional MMA.  They say that the answer is regulation of the sport, not a total ban.

New York’s current ban, which was adopted in February 1997, includes a restriction on speech or activity that in any way “advances” or leads one to “profit from” professional MMA, a ban on any professional MMA matches from being “held or given” within New York, and prohibits “profiting from” professional MMA in New York.  Plaintiffs claim that all levels of New York government officials supported the ban because they previously believed that MMA “sends the wrong message” to the state’s youth, and the Plaintiffs allege that the ban violates the 1st Amendment, Equal Protection Clause, Due Process Clause, and Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution.  In Paragraph 18, the Complaint provides some context for the 1st Amendment claim by quoting the popular Bruce Lee, who had stated, “But if you don’t have [martial art] styles, how can [I] express myself, totally and completely?…To me…ultimately, martial arts means honestly expressing yourself…”

While I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Complaint and learned a lot about MMA (including its historical roots being traced back to the ancient sport of pankration), I wonder if it is truly a short and plain statement of the ultimate facts.  Even the descriptions of the Parties are long-winded.  In fact, you can skip all the way to Paragraph 155, where the Plaintiffs begin to discuss the actual legal issues involved in their Complaint.  Indeed, it is Paragraph 155 that is the single most important part of the Complaint.  It reads,

“The Live Professional MMA Ban bars professional MMA athletes from conveying their messages during live events in New York, and it prevents the fans from experiencing and receiving those messages.  Not only that, but, the Ban is so broadly written that it appears to prohibit essentially any conduct – including a wide range of conduct and speech unquestionably protected by the First Amendment – that relates to professional MMA.”

And then Paragraph 158 states,

“Moreover, the Ban is not even narrowly tailored to achieve its intended purpose of stifling the perceived message behind MMA.  If the legislature’s concern is that MMA sends a message of violence, the Ban makes no sense because New Yorkers can watch MMA on television and they can train in MMA in gyms across the State – they just cannot watch or compete in live professional events.  Those who are interested in MMA will go to live events, and those who are not interested will not attend.  If the justification for the Ban is preventing the perceived message of MMA from being disseminated, the Ban does not work, for the people who are going to attend live MMA events are those who are already receiving its message.”

The Plaintiffs seek (1) a declaration that the Live Professional MMA Ban is unconstitutional on its face and as applied to Plaintiffs; (2) an injunction against enforcement of the Live Professional MMA Ban; and (3) attorney’s fees and costs.

Is the Ban a content-based restriction on constitutionally protected speech?  This is really the main question that needs to be answered by the Court.  The Plaintiffs claim that the Ban was adopted in response to what was perceived to be the violent message of MMA.  Is that still the reason that the Ban remains in place?

Count II of the Complaint claims that the Ban is overbroad.  Criminal and/or civil penalties may be enforced against a violator of the Act.  I see how the prohibitions may be deemed to be overbroad, particularly, prohibition #2.  The Ban prohibits (1) any professional MMA matches from being “conducted, held or given” within New York, (2) “advancing” professional MMA in New York, or (3) “profiting from” professional MMA in New York.

There is a Count for violation of the Equal Protection Clause based on the claim that New York discriminates against professional MMA for not rational reason.

In all, there are a total of 7 Counts, which may be viewed in the Complaint attached at the bottom of this post.  The lawsuit was filed by Jamie A. Levitt, Leah A. Ramon, and Jonathan C. Rothberg of Morrison & Foerster LLP.  NYU Law professor Barry Friedman is serving Of Counsel.

New York MMA Complaint