November 15, 2011 7:22pm PT by Eriq Gardner
UFC Sues to Overturn New York Ban on Live Mixed Martial Arts
Is fighting a constitutionally-protected form of expression?
Yes, says the owner of Ultimate Fighting Championship, which today filed a lawsuit against New York officials intent on upholding a 14-year-old ban against the live exhibition of mixed martial arts. Zuffa, UFC's majority owner, is now intent on ending this ban, delivering its legal punch just days after Fox became the first broadcast network to show a live UFC event.
Zuffa announced the filing of the lawsuit with a flourish this morning on its Twitter feed.
"Good morning, NY," said the tweet, delivered just hours after NYC police had cleared out Zuccotti Park, sparking outcries from Occupy Wall Street protesters. As city officials fought one developing First Amendment battle, they were hit with another in the form of a lawsuit that puts forward the idea that banning live professional MMA is a patent violation of the U.S. Constitution.
According to the complaint:
"A live professional MMA event is both sport and theater. Fighters express themselves in every aspect of the live performance -- from the entrances they stage and the walkout music they select, to the clothes they wear, to the way they conduct themselves inside the arena and towards their opponent. Fans come not just for the fights, but also for this entire unified show."
The 123-page complaint gives the full history of MMA and breaks down the rules. It posits the idea that MMA is safer than many other sporting events and gives full descriptions of various fighters' stories.
From a legal point of view, though, its most interesting aspect might be the idea that a recent Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Entm't Merchants Ass'n) that overturned a California ban on violent video games to minors may have rendered New York's ban untenable.
In that decision, the Supreme Court found that video games communicate social messages and that legislatures are prohibited by the constitution from creating "new categories of unprotected speech simply by weighing the value of a particular category against its social costs and then punishing it if it fails the test."
Zuffa has taken the high court's message to heart, crafting a lawsuit that puts this issue front and center. The plaintiffs say that the New York ban can no longer be "justified based on antipathy to MMA's supposedly 'violent' message."
Interestingly, Zuffa also says that if the New York ban is "read literally," it could apply to media broadcasts and coverage of professional MMA. On Saturday night, Fox broadcast the network debut of UFC to national audiences, including those in New York. The network wasn't scared by possible criminal action and indeed got rewarded. The show pulled in an audience of 5.7 million people, which topped any college football game this season except for one (Alabama-LSU) in the 18-34 demographic.