MANHATTAN (CN) – A federal judge upheld a state law prohibiting the live performance of professional mixed martial arts in New York.
U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood dismissed constitutional challenges to the ban last week, after mixed martial arts supporters failed to prove that the law violated freedom of expression and was vague on its face.
Mixed martial arts (MMA), a sport that blends various martial arts disciplines, became popular in the United States in the1990s, when martial arts competitors came in contact with Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a system of fighting based on submission and grappling techniques. Early mixed martial arts tournaments attracted viewers by advertising the sport’s violence, lack of rules, and risk to fighters, which prompted states to consider bans on the sport.
Citing concerns about health and safety risks to fighters and combative sports’ negative influence on young people, New York adopted a law banning those sports within the state. The 1997 ban excludes boxing, wrestling, and certain martial arts, but prohibits live professional mixed martial arts matches in New York.
The state began cracking down on mixed martial arts events in 2002, but continued to allow other combative sports, such as kickboxing, according to court filings.
In 2001, New Jersey became the first of 46 states to formally authorize and regulate mixed martial arts matches. But despite the sport’s expanding fan base and the growing number of Ultimate Fighting Championship viewers, New York refused to overturn the ban.
A group of professional and amateur MMA athletes, trainers and fans, led by the owner of Ultimate Fighting Championship, the main promoter of professional mixed martial arts, challenged the ban in a 2011 federal lawsuit. The plaintiffs claimed that the ban violated speech rights by regulating the content of public entertainment.
They argued that New York’s ban made no sense, as other sports as violent as mixed martial arts, such as boxing, ice hockey, football and tightrope walking over Niagara Falls, are allowed in New York.
After Wood dismissed several claims, MMA supporters filed an amended complaint, reiterating their constitutional challenges to the ban.
They argued that modern mixed martial arts, which attract an impressive number of fans, had come a long way from the “no holds barred” tournaments of the early 1990s and no longer posed the same risk to fighters. Fighters now compete in weight classes, receive medical treatment between five-minute rounds, and abide by rules prohibiting certain strikes and maneuvers, according to the amended complaint.
The plaintiffs claimed that MMA fighters, who are both athletes and performers, sought to convey a message of discipline, courage and determination and share their stories with audiences. Thus, by prohibiting professional MMA matches and exhibitions, New York’s combative sport ban violates the First Amendment, according to MMA supporters.
But Wood ruled that live-performance MMA does not qualify for First Amendment protection.
Although MMA athletes may intend to convey a certain message, the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate a “great likelihood” that viewers will understand that message, according to the Sept. 30 opinion.
“Without making an ‘esthetic [or] moral judgment’ regarding MMA … the court concludes that the nature of professional MMA is such that the audience is not likely to receive the particularized artistic, technical, and personal messages that plaintiffs allege MMA fighters intend to convey,” Wood wrote.
Professional MMA is a sport defined by competitive conduct and does not resemble public performances that communicate expressive messages, such as music, dance and theatrical performance, the 44-page opinion states.
Wood also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the ban is constitutionally overbroad.
“The court finds that the ban’s prohibition against knowingly profiting from a combative sport activity criminalizes only the financial arrangements relating to professional, live-performance MMA,” Wood wrote. “This provision does not implicate overbreadth concerns because it does not target expressive conduct. Rather, by focusing on the receipt of money in furtherance of professional MMA, this provision plainly and legitimately targets only the financial support of otherwise illegal conduct that this court has already determined is not entitled to First Amendment protection.”
The ban does not prohibit general advocacy or discussions of MMA, including lectures, courses or litigation involving mixed martial arts, the ruling adds.
Wood agreed that the plaintiffs may succeed on their as-applied vagueness challenge to the ban, but dismissed their facial challenge.
Given the state’s inconsistent interpretation and enforcement of the ban, the plaintiffs have adequately alleged that the statute is unconstitutionally vague in regulating professional mixed martial arts sanctioned by exempt organizations, amateur MMA events and professional MMA events on Indian reservations, the opinion states.
The plaintiffs cannot prove, however, that the statute’s failure to define terms such as “professional,” “exhibition,” “combative sport” and “martial arts” confuses the public as to what conduct is prohibited or how the ban will be enforced, according to the ruling.
The statute lists various categories of conduct that clearly fall within the ban, and, although some terms may be ambiguous, the law is not “impermissibly vague in all of its applications,” Wood concluded.
The judge agreed that MMA may be no less safe than other sports allowed in New York, but noted that the legislature’s decision to treat MMA differently does not violate due process or equal protection rights.
The plaintiffs also failed to allege clear discrimination against out-of-state businesses in favor of in-state businesses, because the ban applies without regard to the geographic origin of the promoters or fighters, according to the ruling.
Representatives for the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the New York Attorney General did not return requests for comment.
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