UFC Claims New York State Law Banning Live MMA Events Violates the First Amendment

Nov 22, 2011   

On November 15, 2011, Zuffa, LLC, which owns the Ultimate Fighting Championship (“UFC”) brought suit against New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. seeking a declaration that New Yorks ban on live mixed martial arts (“MMA”) events is unconstitutional. More specifically, the complaint, which was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleges that enforcement of the ban violates UFCs and its “performers” free speech rights protected under the First Amendment. A copy of the UFCs complaint can be read here.

Generally speaking, attempts by the regulate speech fall into two broad categories: 1) “content-neutral” regulations, and 2) “content-based” regulations. The governments attempts to regulate the “time, place, and manner” of the expression or speech at issue, and not the message of the speech, are known as “content-neutral” speech regulations. In order for a “time, place, and manner” regulation to be found constitutional, it must: 1) be content neutral; 2) be narrowly tailored to achieve a significant government interest; and 3) the regulation must leave open alternative channels for communicating the information, i.e. other methods to communicate the same message still exist.

On the other hand, “content-based” regulations which attempt to regulate protected forms of expression are presumed to be unconstitutional. In order for a “content-based” regulation to be found constitutional it must pass strict scrutiny, i.e. the regulation must: 1) serve a compelling government interest which is 2) necessary to achieve this interest and for which there are no less restrictive means that would accomplish the governments goals just as well. It should be noted that all expression is protected unless it falls into one of five categories: 1) obscenity; 2) fraudulent misrepresentation; 3) defamation; 4) advocacy of imminent lawless behavior; or 5) “fighting words.” Speech in these five categories is considered “unprotected speech” and thus may be regulated by the government without violating the First Amendment.

In its complaint, UFC alleges that N.Y. Unconsol. Law § 8905-a (2) (hereinafter “Live MMA Ban”), is an improper “content-based” law and thus violates the UFCs and its performers freedom of expression. The UFC has alleged that, although the law has the appearance of a safety regulation, the legislative history of the Live MMA Ban reveals that the ban was implemented to restrict MMAs misperceived message of violence.